Rosebank's legal double whammy

Uplift and Greenpeace UK mounting legal challenges to stop development of Rosebank, the UK’s largest untapped North Sea oilfield.

It’s like building a bomb and claiming it’s completely harmless so long as no-one detonates it.

Environmental campaigners at Uplift and Greenpeace UK are mounting separate legal challenges seeking to overturn the UK government’s decision to allow development of Rosebank, the UK’s largest untapped North Sea oilfield. 

Greenpeace and Uplift have both applied to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for two separate judicial reviews of the decision by the energy secretary, currently Claire Coutinho, to grant consent to the Rosebank oil project.

Arguments by Uplift and Greenpeace UK include that it is unlawful because it ignores the impact of emissions from burning Rosebank’s oil, it is not compatible with the government’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a safe climate, and it would damage a protected area of the North Sea and the diverse marine life it supports.

Tax breaks

Rosebank, 80 miles north-west of Shetland, contains around 500 million barrels of oil, which when burned would emit as much carbon dioxide as running 56 coal-fired power stations for a year. The UK public will carry 91 per cent the cost of developing the field, with Rosebank’s owners set to receive around £3 billion in tax breaks. 

Yet the project won’t cut household energy bills: Rosebank’s oil will be sold on the world market and most will be exported, and UK oil and gas production does not make a material difference to the price UK consumers pay.

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift and a climate lawyer, said: "If Rosebank goes ahead, the UK will blow its own plans to stay within safe climate limits. It’s that simple. If the government disagrees, it needs to provide evidence and prove it in court. The regulator also needs to be open about its reasons for approving a huge oil field when we’re facing a worsening climate crisis. 

"And for what? Rosebank is getting billions in tax breaks, but it will do nothing to lower bills or boost UK energy security as it’s mostly oil for export. People have had enough of oil and gas companies getting their way all the time. This case is about forcing our government to put the public’s safety first, over their need to profit. 


"What’s clear from this year’s climate talks is that the UK government, like other oil producing countries, is failing to protect our world from dangerous climate change. But rather than lose hope, we can and will hold them to account, in court, starting with this decision to approve Rosebank." 

Greenpeace UK’s co-executive director, Areeba Hamid, said: “Rosebank’s development was approved under the false claim that it is entirely compatible with the UK’s legally binding climate commitments. This is a lie.

“The government used a rigged climate assessment to approve its development, deliberately ignoring all of the emissions that will come from burning the 500 million barrels of oil it contains. It’s like building a bomb and claiming it’s completely harmless so long as no one detonates it.

It’s like building a bomb and claiming it’s completely harmless so long as no-one detonates it.

“Since its oil will be exported and sold by Norwegian fossil fuel giant, Equinor, Rosebank won’t deliver any benefits to the UK’s energy security, economy, or lower bills. 

"It’s just more proof that this government is putting the profits of oil and gas companies over the British public and the planet. Rosebank’s development simply cannot go ahead. And we’re taking the government to court to make sure that it doesn’t.”


Demands for a global phase-out of fossil fuels took centre stage at the COP28 UN climate summit, and the UK government’s advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), recently said that the expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with the UK’s legally-binding net zero target. 

They said meeting the target “means investing now in low-carbon industries to deliver lasting economic benefits to the UK” and an “unambiguous commitment to the fossil fuel phase out, accepting that global reserves are already too great.”

The UK government and oil and gas companies have agreed a target of halving CO2 emissions from oil and gas production by 2030 (from 2018 levels) under the North Sea Transition Deal. 

However, the CCC has called for the industry to set “more ambitious decarbonisation targets (well beyond the 50 per cent target set out in the North Sea Transition Deal)”.

Even before Rosebank was approved the NSTA, which regulates the oil and gas industry, admitted that the sector was not on course to meet its 2030 target. 


The NSTA gave Norwegian state-owned company Equinor consent to develop Rosebank in September, just a day after the International Energy Agency repeated its warning that no new oil and gas fields were consistent with the target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. 

In an application filed by law firm Davidson Chalmers Stewart, Uplift claims that the decision to approve Rosebank is irrational and unlawful because the energy secretary failed to show how it is consistent with the UK’s legally binding target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. 

It notes that the North Sea Transition Deal is referred to in the government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan as the basis on which the sector will move towards decarbonisation.

“The NSTD is an integral part of the strategy to meet the carbon budgets,” it says in its application, adding that approval of Rosebank will make it impossible to achieve the NSTD target of halving CO2 emissions from North Sea oil and gas by 2030. 

Uplift also argues that the NSTA’s approval of Rosebank was procedurally unfair and irrational because it gave no reasons for making its decision and specifically failed to explain how it was consistent with the NSTA’s duty to assist the Energy Secretary in meeting the net zero target.

Finally, the case states that the government has failed to adequately assess the impacts of Rosebank on Britain’s seas, including minimising the impacts on the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt, which is a Marine Protected Area.

Laura Tainsh, head of environment at Davidson Chalmers Stewart LLP, said: "This is a critically important challenge that, for the first time, scrutinises the oil and gas industry’s contribution to the UK’s climate targets as embodied in the North Sea Transition Deal. We are delighted to be involved in bringing Uplift’s many grounds of argument forward for consideration by the court."


Greenpeace UK's application, filed by Harper Macleod LLP, focuses on two areas which also feature in Uplift's application: the effect of downstream emissions from use of the oil and gas Rosebank will produce; and its impact on a marine protected area. 

Greenpeace UK notes that the energy secretary’s consent for Rosebank was based on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which deliberately excluded consideration of downstream emissions.

It argues that the decision is invalid because "in excluding downstream emissions" the EIA did not meet the requirement to assess the “direct and indirect effects of the use of the extracted hydrocarbons on human health, the environment, and climate change." 

Greenpeace UK also considers that the reason the secretary of state gave for excluding consideration of downstream emissions was irrational.

Greenpeace UK also argues that Rosebank is unlawful because it breaches the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations and there is no evidence that Scottish ministers were consulted about its impacts.

Drilling will take place in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (NCMPA) and only 25km from an important breeding site for seabirds in the Seas off Foula Special Protected Area. 

Drilling and laying subsea cable will destroy habitats for sponges and other species living on the seabed while oil contamination would affect whales and wild birds.

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Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.

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