Environmentalist group Greenpeace took the U.K. government to court over what it sees as Britain's failure to protect coral beds, whales, dolphins and other marine life from the effects of oil and gas exploration.
QC, representing Greenpeace, told London's High Court that the government had failed to apply the European Union Habitats Directive to oil and gas exploration in the relatively deep waters of the Atlantic Frontier, where oil companies believe large new oil reserves are waiting to be tapped.
He said that the Department of Trade and Industry is under a legal duty to apply the EU Directive even though the Atlantic Frontier, on the edge of U.K.'s Continental Shelf, lay beyond British territorial waters.
He said "vulnerable jewels of the natural world" had to be protected.
"The whales and dolphins and cold water corals are desperately in need of protection for their habitats," he said. "Only the proper application of the Habitat Directive will provide that protection."
Oil companies Texaco, Esso U.K., Marathon Oil U.K., Mobil North Sea, Enterprise Oil, Conoco Ltd., Statoil (STO)
, Philips Petroleum U.K., Elf Exploration And British Gas Exploration and Production are opposing Greenpeace's moves.
A spokeswoman for the U.K. Offshore Operators Association, which represents Britain's North Sea oil companies, declined to comment directly on the court case but said the oil industry was already working under strict environmental regulations.
"The industry has been active on the Atlantic (Frontier) for over 20 years, and we've drilled in the region of 150 wells already," she said.
"We are statutorily obliged to make environmental impact assessments before we drill or produce oil or whatever. There are about 200 environmental regulations."
She added the industry had spent over three million pounds on commissioning research looking at the effects of drilling and oil production on the seabed and marine life.
The hearing is expected to continue for one week.