The European Court of Human Rights  (ECtHR) has given the Norwegian Government until April to respond to accusations from environmental groups that new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic breaches fundamental freedoms.  

The case was first brought to the European court in June 2021 after activists faced repeated defeats in Norwegian courts.

Environmental groups have been pushing back against the government’s decision to open up parts of the Barents Sea to oil exploration, which they say breaches their – and future generations’ – rights.  

While the groups were initially unsuccessful, a series of legal wins for environmentalists – such as a Dutch court ruling for Shell to reduce its emissions – has fueled hopes that significant change may be seen in Norway. 

According to the ECtHR’s ruling, the Norwegian Government has until 13 April to provide a written statement on the benefits of the project. 

“The Court’s request to the Norwegian Government is a significant development, as just one out of 10 cases reach this point,” said Cathrine Hambro, the lawyer representing the activists, in a statement. “A judgment from ECtHR would be important not just for Norway, but also for the pan-European application of the European Convention on Human Rights in climate cases.” 

Norway is currently the biggest oil producer in western Europe, with around 67 production fields in the North Sea. The majority of its assets are located in the North and Norwegian seas, but the government announced it had decided to expand into the Barents Sea in 2016, with 70 new blocks offered to oil majors by 2021 – an announcement that was met with ire by Greenpeace Norway. 

“Yesterday it became clear that Norway will not reach its climate obligations,” said Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway, following the announcement. “Today the government offers oil companies massive new exploration. Are there any adults at home?” 

A total of six activists and two environmental groups have now taken their complaints against the Barents Sea drilling to the ECtHR. 

A government spokesperson said that it maintains that no human rights have been violated.