Greenpeace vs Norway: Interview with Truls Gulowsen, Head of Greenpeace Norway

By Larissa Beumer
Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway, and Ingrid Skjoldvær, head of Nature and Youth,  file an unprecedented legal case against the Norwegian government for allowing oil companies to drill for new oil in the Arctic Barents Sea. 

Norway was among the first countries in the world to ratify the Paris Agreement, which entered into force on 4 November 2016. By ratifying, Norway has promised to ambitiously reduce its emissions. Yet, on 18 May 2016, the Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Tord Lien, awarded licenses for oil and gas exploration in a new area of the Barents Sea, calling the step a ‘new chapter’ for the petroleum industry. It is the first time in more than 20 years that Norway has opened a completely new area for exploration. In this 23rd license round, 10 licenses, consisting of 40 blocks in total, were given out to 13 oil companies, including the northern most block ever opened to oil exploration in Norway. On 18 October 2016, Greenpeace Nordic and the Norwegian environmental youth organization Nature and Youth sued the Norwegian government for handing out these new oil licenses in the Norwegian part of the Barents Sea.
We talked to Truls Gulowsen, Head of Greenpeace Norway, about the court case against the Norwegian government over Arctic oil drilling.

Mr Gulowsen, why did Greenpeace and Nature and Youth decide to sue the Norwegian government over Arctic oil drilling?

The decision was the outcome of several processes. We are deeply concerned with Norway’s continued push for Arctic oil drilling in spite of the global climate situation as well as the sensitive environment in this region. We have been campaigning against the opening of these areas, and especially licensing closer to icy waters, for many years. 

So far, as part of both the Norwegian environmental struggle and the global movement to protect the Arctic and the climate, we have been successful in pushing back the oil industry in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, with Shell’s withdrawal from Alaska in 2015 as key moment. The situation is also more relaxed in Russia at the moment because of the high costs related to Arctic oil development. However, Norway has been one of the most aggressive players with regards to Arctic drilling over the last years. We decided that it was necessary to do something to push back this development in the Norwegian part of the Arctic as well. 

Another reason is that the revision of the Norwegian constitution in 2014 gave us a much clearer – although untested – legal mandate to challenge new oil licenses in court on climate grounds. So overall, it is a combination of an environmental imperative – we have to challenge Arctic oil drilling if we want to mitigate climate change – and the availability of a new “tool” – a strengthened environmental paragraph in the Norwegian constitution.

What is the legal basis of this case?

We are suing on the grounds of the newly revised environmental paragraph in the Norwegian constitution, §112, which gives each person and especially future generations the right to a healthy and safe environment. The Norwegian government has the responsibility to ensure that right.

We will use climate science and the Paris climate agreement as key pieces of evidence: according to both, maintaining a good environment – as stated in the constitution – includes limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C or even below. That means that our carbon budget does not allow for new oil fields, especially not in the remote and very costly Arctic regions. The commitment from all nations to do whatever is in their power to achieve the 2°C target or even 1.5°C is much stronger than what it was before. This should be reflected by governments’ decisions – and considered in courts. We do not save the climate by signing agreements, but by the actual political decisions that change the emission pathways and keep fossil fuels in the ground. 

In addition, we are also making procedural arguments, as the decision to hand out new licenses did not, as required by the constitution, take the climate impacts of the new licenses into account, nor did it take the latest climate science or climate agreements into consideration.

What exactly are you challenging with this lawsuit?

We are challenging the 23rd licensing round with which the Norwegian government handed out 10 licenses to 13 oil companies for new areas in the Barents Sea. Our quest is that the court deems these licenses invalid. We believe that if we win, it will be the end of any new Arctic oil licensing processes on the Norwegian shelf.

Norway usually has such a good reputation when it comes to climate and environmental protection…

Indeed. As a Norwegian, it feels very strange that Norway is such an educated country, with high awareness about the climate issue on all levels, and strong political commitments to solving the problem, in particular on the international scene. And at the same time, we continue to explore for more oil than the planet can afford to burn. This is hypocrisy, and it is why we need to take the Norwegian government to court.

Why are you particularly opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic?

First of all, because drilling for oil in the Arctic is an extremely risky operation. It is much more challenging than in any other ocean and the oil industry is really pushing its technological limits in the Arctic. If something goes wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic. Shell’s experiences in Alaska have shown that even one of the biggest players within the oil industry systematically underestimated the environmental challenges in the Arctic. And we cannot afford an accident. 

And then there is the climate perspective: Arctic oil is clearly the most expensive fossil fuel in the pipeline. In a rational approach to our climate problem, there is simply no place for Arctic oil since we cannot even burn all the fossil fuel reserves we already found. Any investment into Arctic oil therefore means a bet against achieving the target of limiting global warming to 2°C or even less.

So, Arctic oil really poses a twofold problem: it has the possibility to severely harm the local environment, and it is an unacceptable bet against all climate protection strategies.

Why did you decide to sue now?

We have been working with this possibility for the last 2 years and spent a lot of time and resources to investigate possibilities and to develop a legal strategy and arguments that can hold up in court. So this has taken a lot of time. However, the licenses that we are challenging were not awarded before June 2016, so considering that, we have been quite fast in delivering the lawsuit. It is urgent to settle this issue because Statoil and its partners aim to drill 5 to 7 wells in this area already this summer.

Now that the Court has accepted the case, when would you expect a first hearing?

The Court has already accepted the case. The case will be heard in Oslo City Court from November 14, and the Judge has currently set 7 court days for the proceedings. We are quite excited. In Norway, NGOs like Nature and Youth and Greenpeace have a clear legal right to represent the environment in court. This right was established in the 1980s though campaigns and a court case around the Alta hydropower damn construction. That case was lost in court, but won in public opinion, and lead to a lot of new laws and regulations, for example the consultation and self-rule of Sami indigenous people. So far, we have received significant support from legal academics saying that this is a legitimate case. We would be very surprised if the court dismissed the case. It will, however, be very interesting to see how the court will deal with this because it is the first time the revised environmental paragraph in the constitution will be challenged in court.

What do you think are the chances of winning this court case?

I think we should win! Because facts are on our side and Arctic oil drilling is clearly inconsistent with any climate responsibility for future generations and the spirit of the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C. However, this is a paragraph that has never been tested before. Thus, it will require a lot of independence and bravery from the judge to develop the principles around how the paragraph is to be interpreted. This court case challenges a very powerful industry in Norway and its future. If we win, it is very likely that the state will appeal to the next court level. If we loose, we of course will consider an appeal as well.

What are you hoping to achieve with this case? What would it mean if you win the case?

We want to stop the continuous licensing of new oil fields in the Arctic. We want the oil side of this country to respect the limitations that the global climate situation puts on fossil fuel development. If we win, it will be a major breakthrough for the environment, the climate and for future generations. It will show that the environmental paragraph in the Norwegian constitution is actually able to provide real environmental protection for future generations and that politicians are bound by the laws that they sign themselves.

What is the worst-case outcome? What would it mean if you lose the case?

If we lose, we will continue to campaign with other means. Some people argue that loosing in court might mean that oil drilling becomes legal. But I am not so afraid of that because frankly that is the situation we have right now: oil drilling is legal today. So I am not afraid that we will legitimise drilling.

Critics argue that such political questions do not belong in courtrooms, but should only be discussed by parliaments. What is your view on this?

I disagree with that notion. It is a long tradition in Norway and many other countries that the courts interpret the laws. It’s the job of the court to interpret the constitution. We have a lot of areas like for example workers rights where legislation has been established and disputes are solved in court, even though they are clearly political issues. I don’t understand why the environment should be treated differently and why the laws protecting the environment should not be used in court. Nowadays, politicians make so many laws, but they are not always consistent. If that is the case, it is good to solve these inconsistencies in court.

How does this court case relate to other climate change lawsuits in other countries?

During the preparation period we have been hugely inspired by other climate litigation cases around the world, particularly the Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch government, the Klimaatzaak case in Belgium and the Our Children’s Trust case in the USA. It seems to be more and more clear that courts are getting ready to take a role in the climate debate as governments systematically fail. Given Trump’s recent dismissal of the US participation in the Paris Agreement, I guess the US Climate lawsuit will gain even more ground and importance. When politicians fail, courts must stand up.

What reactions have you seen so far inside and outside Norway?

Inside Norway, we have seen very positive reactions. The environmental movement in Norway is really rallying behind this initiative. Only Nature and Youth and Greenpeace are official plaintiffs, but we receive massive support from other NGOs. The crowd funding for this case, for example, has been supported by the entire climate movement here in Norway.

Also outside of the environmental movement, the reactions here in Norway have been remarkably positive, especially also from the legal constituency. Many influential legal academics have stated that although they don’t necessarily see us having a huge chance to win, they say it is timely to bring the climate to courts.

Hans Petter Grave, influential law professor at the University of Oslo, for example said that in his view, the climate issue is special because of the big divide between what is scientifically necessary to do and the insufficient political response. According to him, this makes it a case for the courts. Many others have said that the change in the environmental paragraph is so important that it is good that it is tested in court.

Of course there are also responses from the opposing side where conservative politicians and commentators have rejected the initiative for political interference, but most of them have not even read the writ and have not understood that this is a serious, well thought-through initiative. The main argument from the government side is that they have followed all existing laws when filing the licenses and that Norway’s membership in the EU emission trading system is a sufficient response to ensure that Norway complies with the Paris climate agreement. We argue that this is obviously not the case, as the emission trading system does not guarantee that global emissions stay within the 2°C carbon budget, and Norway’s oil and gas exports are not included and explicitly not accounted for.

Reactions outside of Norway have been very positive, too. More than 60.000 people signed up within only a week to become part of the evidence – this shows that this is also important for people outside of Norway. Leonardo DiCaprio launched his important climate change movie last year and suggests this court case as one of the initiatives people can support to act on climate. And the story was covered by various international outlets like The Guardian, The Financial Times and international wires like AP and Reuters. This shows that it is a case of great global interest. And I believe that this interest will only grow in time when people understand that this is a serious process and not just another stunt by environmentalists.

Interested in the case? You can sign up to the case via

Larissa Beumer serves as an Associate in the Natural Environment Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. Holding a BSc in Geography and a MSc degree in Global Change Management, Larissa has a wide-ranging background in environmental sciences with a focus on climate change. She spent the last semesters of her master’s programme at the University Centre in Svalbard, specialising in Arctic ecology and environmental management and worked for two years as an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace.