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Norway to defend itself in court over Arctic oil exploration

[OSLO] A group of activists is trying to put a stop to Norway's Arctic oil exploration and forcing the country to defend itself in the first court case of its kind.

Greenpeace and a Norwegian group, Nature and Youth, say Norway's decision to award 10 Barents Sea exploration licences in 2016 to Statoil ASA, Lundin Petroleum AB, Chevron Corp and others, breaches the country's constitution. Drilling in these areas, which include new acreage bordering Russian waters, is incompatible with Norway's commitment to fight climate change under the 2015 Paris Agreement and poses a threat to the environment, the plaintiffs say.

Norway's government says the plaintiffs are misreading the law - or at least its intention. Representatives from the two sides meet in court in Oslo on Tuesday.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in Norway. But it marks part of a growing global trend of legal challenges brought against governments and companies for falling short on climate change. While specialists doubt this particular suit will be successful, it could pave the way for more legal fights.

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The battle will also force Norway to confront its split status as a nation trying to promote green policies while relying on fossil fuels for economic growth. Norway is trying to wean itself off oil and gas reliance, but it remains western Europe's biggest producer.

"We will see more of this, in Norway and other countries," said Catherine Banet, an associate professor at the University of Oslo.

"It's definitely interesting - it addresses an issue that affects many and goes straight to the dilemma of Norway's petroleum and energy policy."

The lawsuit is the first test of an article added in 2014 to Norway's Constitution to ensure people have a right to a healthy, productive and diverse environment, and that natural resources are managed in a way that protects that right for future generations. The case is also the first to challenge oil and gas activity based on the Paris Agreement, according to Greenpeace.

Norway is pushing exploration in the Barents, which may hold half the country's undiscovered oil and gas, to create a new production hub as North Sea output declines. The government says the plaintiffs' interpretation of Article 112 is too broad, and rejects claims of procedural shortcomings. The responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions lies with the consumer of fossil fuels, not their producer, the attorney general said in court documents. What's more, a ruling in favour of the plaintiffs might have consequences that go far beyond just the petroleum projects in Arctic waters, government lawyers said.

Both Prof Banet and Oystein Jensen, a senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, said that it would be difficult for the plaintiffs to win the case.

"It's important regardless," Mr Jensen said. "The climate problem can't be solved in the courts anyway. It requires a political solution."

While drilling opponents ended up with limited gains in this year's Norwegian election, the campaign showed voters are increasingly questioning whether it makes sense to look for more oil, especially in sensitive Arctic areas. An August poll showed 44 per cent of Norwegian people, among the planet's richest thanks to oil, would be willing to leave resources in the ground if it helps cut emissions.

Meanwhile, adding production in the Barents Sea faces other hurdles with the area's first oil platform, Eni SpA's Goliat, under scrutiny on both its finances and safety.

Proceedings in the Oslo District Court are scheduled to run from Nov 14 to Nov 22. It's too early to say when a ruling is expected, a court spokesman said.