Greenpeace faces a heavy fine after admitting its climate activists boarded a North Sea oil rig in defiance of a court order last year.
Transocean, the US-based drilling contractor, has asked the court of session in Edinburgh to impose unlimited fines on Greenpeace UK and consider jailing its executive director, John Sauven, for contempt of court.
The legal action is the latest challenge by an oil major following Greenpeace’s decision to switch the focus of its climate campaign to the North Sea oil industry in protest at its role in the climate crisis.
In December, Shell won a court ruling banning Greenpeace from occupying four of its rigs in the Brent field after Lady Carmichael, a judge in Edinburgh, ruled the protest group was breaching Shell’s property rights and risking its activists’ safety.
The Transocean case came after Greenpeace activists climbed on to the Paul B Loyd rig while it was at anchor in the Cromarty Firth north of Inverness in June last year. Greenpeace was protesting at its contract to drill new oil wells in the Vorlich field for BP.
The day after the first group of activists boarded the rig on 9 June, Transocean and BP won an interim interdict, or emergency injunction, banning Greenpeace from occupying it or coming within 500 metres of it while at sea.
That first group was removed by police on 13 June. The following day, two more activists occupied the rig for less than 24 hours. After the rig left the Cromarty Firth under tow to the Vorlich field, speedboats from the Greenpeace International protest ship Arctic Sunrise briefly breached the 500-metre exclusion zone around it.
Lawyers for Greenpeace UK admitted in the court on Monday they knew both incidents put the organisation in contempt of court.
James Mure QC, for Greenpeace, told Lady Wolffe, the judge, they were justified in defying the court order to raise public awareness of the significant impact that North Sea oil production was having on the climate.
With Sauven sitting behind him, Mure said there was scientific consensus that drilling for new oil reserves would breach the Paris agreement on capping carbon emissions, and would accelerate climate heating.
Before pleading for leniency and an acceptance Greenpeace was acting in the public interest, Mure cited statements from BP executives including Bob Dudley, the company’s chairman, admitting the world faced a climate crisis.
Greenpeace was upholding a long tradition of civil disobedience, Mure added. “There are few amongst us who are willing to bear witness [to the climate crisis] in a more challenging way,” he told the court.
Wolffe confirmed she had read Greenpeace’s submissions on the climate science and the Paris agreement, and said: “One just has to have regard to the extraordinary weather events on the continent in the last month or two.”
Despite supporting the first emergency injunction, BP has not joined in with Transocean’s decision to sue Greenpeace for contempt – the environmental campaign group believes that shows BP is anxious to avoid unfavourable publicity.
Jonathan Barne QC, acting for Transocean, said his client “does not call into question the sincerity of the beliefs or the motives which led to this action, and the pursuer doesn’t call into question Greenpeace’s right to protest”.
But by the time the second group of activists had climbed on the rig, Greenpeace “had made their point and made their point well”.
Greenpeace “breached the interdict in the full knowledge it was doing so and Greenpeace wore that breach as a badge of honour”, he added. That was a direct challenge to the authority of the court and a restriction of Transocean’s rights to go about its business, and was inherently dangerous, Barne said.
Wolffe said she would announce her decision in court on 23 March.