Greenpeace UK has been fined £80,000 after being found guilty of contempt of court during a lengthy maritime confrontation last summer in which activists attempted to stop a BP oil rig from reaching a North Sea oil field.
The environmental charity’s executive director John Sauven narrowly avoided a suspended jail sentence, with Judge Lady Wolffe saying she had decided to exercise “leniency” in a virtual hearing at Scotland’s highest civil court.
The Court of Session heard that the BP rig was headed for the North Sea’s Vorlich oil field when it was occupied by activists in the Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness, on 9 June 2019.
Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise shadowed the rig and prevented it from reaching the oil field for 12 days, defying an interim interdict – or temporary ban – secured by rig operators Transocean on anyone connected with Greenpeace either boarding the rig or coming within 500 metres of it.
Lady Wolffe said on Friday that the charity admitted breaching the order twice – once as two activists joined others onboard the rig on 14 June to unfurl a “Climate emergency Greenpeace” banner, and again by sending boats from the Arctic Sunrise after the rig two days later but being “unable to put any protesters on the rig”.
A total of 14 arrests were made at the time, with BP branding the action “irresponsible” and “reckless”.
Mr Sauven had said: “BP are heading out to drill a new well giving them access to 30 million barrels of oil – something we can’t afford in the middle of a climate emergency. We can’t give up and let oil giants carry on with business as usual because that means giving up on a habitable planet and our kids’ future.”
Lady Wolffe dismissed Greenpeace’s argument that the breaches did not constitute contempt of court as the protesters were acting of their own choice, accusing the organisation of “deflecting responsibility”, in a ruling that could have profound implications for future organised protests.
“Without Greenpeace’s active support and resources, none of those who attempted to board the rig would have been able to do so,” the judge said.
“There is no doubt that John Sauven was acting in his capacity as executive director of Greenpeace. He retained overall control and could have ended the action at any point.
“Most critically, he could have ended the action at the point where it breached the order. Greenpeace have exhibited wilful defiance of the order and they are guilty of contempt of court.”
Lady Wolffe said those found guilty of contempt can be jailed for up to two years and a suspended sentence for Mr Sauven was “in range” when considering how tough a sanction to impose.
“It is fundamental to the rule of law that court orders are obeyed,” she said. “However I intend to exercise leniency and confine this court’s sanction to a fine of Greenpeace.”
Transocean had argued that a lenient result may encourage organisations “less safe than Greenpeace”.
Following the hearing, Mr Sauven said: “We are disappointed that BP’s rig operator Transocean has sought to punish us for trying to protect the planet.
“But our campaign does not end here and we will continue to fight to stop the oil industry from wrecking our climate.”