Marine Protected Areas

Marine conservation group threatens UK government with legal action

The marine conservation organisation Oceana has threatened legal action over the UK government’s decision to grant new oil and gas exploration licences in Marine Protected Areas.

Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Michiel Vos & Ellen Cuylaerts via Ocean Image Bank

After the UK government granted new oil and gas licences on 3rd May of this year – a third of which are in Marine Protected Areas – marine conservation organisation Oceana has decided to write to the government threatening legal action if they don’t withdraw the new licences.

“We believe that the licences are unlawful due to inadequate ‘appropriate assessments’ – assessments of the impacts on protected areas which are required under the habitat regulations,” an Oceana spokesperson commented.

Oceana has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) threatening a judicial review of the decision made in May 2024 to approve new oil and gas licences in Marine Protected Areas. They are calling on the Secretary of State to withdraw the new licences and complete fresh environmental assessments of the proposed licences.

In October 2022, the UK government opened the 33rd UK Offshore Licensing Round, the process by which oil companies are granted exclusive right to explore ‘blocks’ of the sea for oil and gas. The NSTA received applications for 258 blocks and concluded that 96 required appropriate assessments. In July 2023, OPRED, on behalf of DESNZ, published draft appropriate assessments for these blocks and opened a consultation. Oceana, supported by many other organisations, submitted a response to the consultation, setting out extensive concerns. Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies also were invited to provide feedback on the assessments.

In October 2023, January 2024, May 2024, the NSTA award 27, 24 and 31 new licences respectively – a total of 82 licences awarded in the 33rd round. The final appropriate assessments were published with the third tranche on 3 May 2024. The documents suggest the 33rd Seaward Licencing Round will have no adverse effect on MPAs despite many overlapping.

Oceana is has sent a pre-action protocol letter arguing that the decision to grant the licences is illegal and must be withdrawn. The Government has been given 14 days to respond.

“The legal challenge presents a strategic opportunity that goes far beyond directly challenging the new licences in question. It has strategic importance for the wider fight to end all new licences and for environmental protection much more broadly,” an Oceana statement read.


The following five grounds for a potential legal claim were put to government in the letter:

1. Failure to consider the impacts of accidents. The government chosen to exclude the impact of accidental spills in the assessments. This is a glaring omission given spills are routine in the oil industry and the frequency is well documented.

2. Failure to factor in the impact of climate change. We know climate change is impacting seas through heat waves, acidification and more, yet the additional pressures caused by climate change and were not considered by government in their assessment.

3. Making conclusions about the impacts of the licences based on an assumption that the licenced activity won’t go ahead. This goes against the precautionary principle and is inconsistent with previous assessments.

4. Failure to adequately assess the cumulative impacts of the licences.

5. Failure to consider or pay due regard to advice from statutory agencies. Although the government may choose to depart from the advice from agencies, it must give a cogent reason for doing so. It has given no reason for departing from advice given by the JNCC, which was acquired by Uplift through a freedom of information request.

The government’s response to the pre-action protocol letter will determine the final grounds for a potential case.

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Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Michiel Vos & Ellen Cuylaerts via Ocean Image Bank

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