Greenpeace won its bid to delay oil exploration in the north Atlantic when a judge ruled the British government was failing to apply a European Commission environmental directive in allocating licenses.
"The decision is a huge victory for whales, dolphins and coral reefs," Peter Melchett, the environmental group's executive director, told reporters after the ruling.
The government is considering an appeal against the judgment that it is not taking into account the Commission's Habitats Directive in issuing exploration licenses. A spokesman said the government had been planning to issue new licenses in its 19th round early in 2000, but this was likely to be delayed.
"We will have to look at the judgment and discuss with other relevant government departments before we come to a decision about making an appeal," a spokeswoman at the Department of Trade and Industry said.
Ten energy companies were also party to the case. These were: Texaco, Esso UK, Marathon Oil UK, Mobil North Sea, Enterprise Oil, Conoco Ltd, Statoil (STO)
, Philips Petroleum Co UK, Elf Exploration and British Gas Exploration and Production.
Government Likely To Appeal
Philip Vaughan, the lawyer who represented the oil and gas companies who together with the government opposed the Greenpeace action, said he thought the government would appeal.
"I'm sure they will exercise the right," As to the longer term implications of the ruling, Vaughan said it would certainly slow down the next licensing round, but "at the end of the day it will not make a great deal of difference."
He said oil companies do not want to drill in environmentally sensitive areas. The companies are keen to drill in the virgin waters of the north Atlantic, believing them to contain large new oil and gas deposits. They say that they have abided by strict environmental regulations in the area so far.
The DTI spokesman said that the judgment was not likely to have a material impact on British oil and gas exploration.
Greenpeace challenged the government over what it saw as its failure to protect coral beds, whales, dolphins and other marine life in the relatively deep water area known as the Atlantic Frontier off the western coast of Scotland.
To Protect Marine Jewels
Greenpeace's QC, Nigel Plemming, told the court the "vulnerable jewels of the natural world" had to be protected. Little-known reefs located 300 feet below the surface teem with upwards of 900 species of marine species, which would be endangered by drilling for oil and gas, environmentalists said.
High Court Judge Maurice Kay said the proposed gas and oil fields in question fell within the geographic limits governed by the European Commission directive, which requires member states to protect sensitive marine sites. The British government must
consider the directive before granting any exploration licenses, he said.
"The Secretary of State cannot lawfully decide whether to grant licenses in the 19th round of offshore licensing without first considering the provisions of the Habitats Directive," the judge said.
Britain's position has been that the directive only applies in the country's 12-mile territorial limits and not to the 200 mile zone off the coast over which it claims mineral rights. - (Matthew Jones, Reuters)