High court ponders future of Arctic oil

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Opponents of offshore oil activity in Norway’s Arctic areas received flowers to mark the end last week of their landmark case against the state at the Supreme Court. As the high court’s deliberations began, the plaintiffs were cheered by earlier signs of royal support, not least after some harsh closing arguments.

Greenpeace Norge leader Frode Pleym and other plaintiffs in the case against Norway’s Arctic oil activity received flowers after closing arguments at the Supreme Court late last week. Now PHOTO: Greenpeace/Johanna Hanno

The case has received lots of attention in Norway, ever since two leading environmental organizations first claimed that Arctic oil exploration and production violates the Norwegian constitution. It states, in its now much-debated Paragraph 112, that all Norwegians have a right to an environment that ensures good health, and that nature must be managed in a sustainable manner for the good of future generations.

King Harald V has himself referred to that alleged constitutional guarantee when he sent a greeting to Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet) on its 100th anniversary in 2014. The organization’s youth group, Natur og Ungdom, has been among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Greenpeace Norge and with the backing of an active group made up of grandparents concerned about the climate. The grandparents’ group has claimed all along that the constitutional paragraph, unanimously approved by Parliament in 1992, was a natural extension of the UN commission’s report in 1989 on “Our Common Future,” led by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

“We need solidarity between the generations, and authorities with a willingness to take our signing of the (UN’s) Paris agreement seriously,” wrote Halfdan Wiik of the organization Besteforeldrenes klimaaksjon (Grandparents’ Climate Action) in newspaper Klassekampen on Friday.

Royal support
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on the royal family’s longstanding support for environmental issues. King Harald has been a beskytter (literally, “royal protector”) of Norges Naturvernforbundet along with being an honorary member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “The entire royal family has a strong engagement for nature, the climate and the environment,” confirmed Sven Gjeruldsen, assistant communications chief at the Royal Palace, to Dagsavisen last week. It comes in the form of both official duties and their own recreational interests, Gjeruldsen said, noting that the “royal protection” is meant to be a “recognition” of organizations and events within important areas.

Plaintiffs followed the legal action from inside the Supreme Court, as the trial itself was conducted in a digital format, to conform with Corona infection measures. PHOTO: Greenpeace/Johanna Hanno

“It means a lot for us,” said Maren Esmark, secretary general of Naturvernforbund, especially when recollecting how King Harald’s own greeting highlighted the essence of the organization’s lawsuit against the state. The royals are supposed to avoid taking sides in political issues, but the king’s recognition of the constitution’s environmental guarantee raised hopes that the Supreme Court will interpret its scope in such a way that future oil drilling and production in sensitive Arctic areas will no longer be allowed.

The state argues strongly against the idea that the constitution can restrict oil licensing in the Arctic, and closing arguments were harsh on both sides. Cathrine Hambro, representing Greenpeace Norge and Natur og Ungdom, urged the Supreme Court justices to rule with the thought of their own grandchildren’s future in mind, since they’ll have to live with much tougher climate change than we have now.

“These grandchildren will know whether they had a grandfather or grandmother on Norway’s Supreme Court,” Hambro all but warned. “I encourage you to deliver a verdict of which your grandchildren will be proud.”

State defends Arctic oil activity
Fredrik Sejersted, defending the state, countered that it would be “irresponsible” for the high court to interpret the constitutional paragraph on the environment in the same way that the environmental organizations (and arguably the king) do. The Parliament never intended to give citizens environmental rights, he argued, and the courts should not take on the role of forming policy.

Sejersted further defended Norwegian oil exports, claiming that Norway can’t be held responsible for the emissions they create in the countries were the oil is consumed.  Active offshore oil installations in the vast Barents Sea that borders on Russia also serve a defense purpose, he claimed, adding that it’s been important for Norway to chart oil resources in areas close to Russian waters.

The state has prevailed at both the local and appeals court levels, so it was a victory in itself for the environmentally concerned plaintiffs when the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. The organizations have also enjoyed support from a long list of celebrities and when one member of Naturvernforbund’s board, Thomas Cottis, launched a hunger strike when the case began on November 2, several others joined in. They didn’t eat again until the case ended 10 days later, but allowed themselves to drink water, juice and tea with honey in it.

It remained unclear when a decision will be handed down. “I fear a disappointment,” Cottis told Dagsavisen, “but what I fear most is the hopelessness, letting our young people down, and the fury that those concerned with justice will feel. We’ll have no protection, and the constitutional paragraph will be dead.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund