AN SNP Common Weal group organiser has launched a David-and-Goliath court battle with a UK Government agency over North Sea oil and gas.

An Edinburgh University medical student is also one of three campaigners challenging the Westminster-owned Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the High Court.

The trio, represented by prominent legal firm Leigh Day, includes independence activist Kairin van Sweeden, the daughter of an oil worker, and Edinburgh University medical student Mikaela Loach.

Together with former refinery worker Jeremy Cox, they’ve applied for a judicial review of the OGA’s new strategy, claiming that proferred tax breaks for big producers put it in conflict with its legal duty to “maximise economic recovery” of oil and gas by making it uneconomical for the UK as a whole.

The strategy, they say, is unlawful because it seeks to redefine the meaning of maximising economic recovery to exclude consideration of the tax breaks given to the industry.

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It’s also argued that the strategy is “irrational” as it requires producers to cut carbon emissions – but allows production to increase and could lead to increased levels of fossil fuel extraction that are “in conflict with the UK’s legal duty to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050”, according to Leigh Day lawyer Rowan Smith.

Smith said: “Our clients’ case is that the OGA’s new strategy encourages companies to produce oil and gas without considering the economic repercussions of that on the public purse and the UK as a whole.”

Fossil fuel firms can claim decommissioning relief for removing old rigs and offset this against profits. Such support, according to analysts, has helped make the UK the most profitable state in the world for oil firms to develop large-scale offshore fields. Rystad Energy found the UK got $1.86-per-barrel in tax in 2017, compared with $13.53 for Norway.

The new OGA strategy came into force in February, just weeks before the Government announced it would continue to allow oil and gas companies to explore the North Sea for new reserves.

Van Sweeden and her co-claimants Loach and Cox – are supported by Uplift, which in turn is co-ordinating Paid to Pollute, a new campaign involving environmental groups like Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth Scotland and

The National: Edinburgh University medical student Mikaela Loach is one of the three taking the UK Government to courtEdinburgh University medical student Mikaela Loach is one of the three taking the UK Government to court

The case draws on the 1998 Petroleum Act, which sets “the objective of maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”. The campaigners argue Parliament intended this to ensure production was cost-effective, maximising the long-term value of oil and gas, and notes that one of the principles in the OGA’s new strategy is to “add net value overall to the UK”.

But they say changes in the newest plan frustrate the purpose of the Act by allowing the recovery of oil and gas that is economic to the operator, not the UK as a whole.

The OGA declined to comment.

However, Van Sweeden linked the issue to the industrial decline suffered by Scotland under Thatcher, saying: “For me, this case is urgent and personal. We have a short window of time to prevent catastrophic climate change and the oil industry workers need a fair transition, unlike the steel and coal workers in the 1980s.

“Public money can and should drive this mission-critical transition instead of being placed in the polluters’ pockets.”

Loach commented: “Much of the UK’s oil and gas production is only economic because of public handouts. The Government is paying companies billions in public money to extract every last drop of oil from the North Sea when it should be focusing on decarbonising the UK economy, meeting its international climate obligations and setting an example to the world as host of the UN Climate Summit in November.”

Shell alone received $99m in tax back from the UK in 2020, according to its accounts. It increased its dividend in 2021 after 330 North Sea job cuts.

Mel Evans of Greenpeace UK said: “The UK has one of the lowest effective tax rates in the world for oil extraction. Our government is backing an industry that’s hanging workers out to dry, trashing the climate and costing our economy more money than it brings in.”