Denmark challenges Greenpeace to a fight in court over protests hindering transit of Russian oil

With Russia’s oil and gas being designated as unwelcome contributions to Europe’s energy mix in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, climate and environmental groups have taken it upon themselves to attempt to pull the plug on the transport of the country’s energy supplies across the European Union (EU). These activities have spurred many lawsuits against activists, such as the one Greenpeace is facing in Denmark, which the Danish state set in motion in a crackdown on protests the group embarked on in 2022.

Sune Scheller, Greenpeace's Campaign Manager, participated in three of the protests covered by the lawsuit, including the action related to the SCF Baltica oil tanker on March 19, 2022; Credit: Will Rose/Greenpeace

With the European Union (EU) taking multiple steps to wean itself off Russian oil and gas and diversify its supplies, the sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis in the hopes of bringing the country to heel and ending the conflict led to the rewriting of the global oil map. Activists organized protests to prevent vessels carrying Russian energy supplies from unloading their cargo to strike at the country’s economy and curtail its ability to fund military operations on Ukraine’s soil.

Greenpeace is among those that carried out a series of protests against Russian oil in March 2022. Two years down the road, Denmark took the group to court over four actions its activists organized to try to block Russian tankers on their way through Danish waters with oil that was to be sold on the global market. The case against the climate group stems from a police report from the Danish Maritime Authority, which decided to engage the activist player in a court battle. 

As a result, Greenpeace was due to appear at the Court in Svendborg on June 18 to fight a legal case, which is said to raise questions about the authorities’ priorities when it comes to blockades of Russian oil, and the ability to accommodate peaceful civil disobedience as a form of protest, given the use of clauses that have not previously been used in cases like this, and which have the potential to result in a doubling of the punishment for civil disobedience.

Commenting on the legal case, Sune Scheller, Campaign Manager for Greenpeace Denmark, emphasized: “This is not only a violent attack against the entire right to peaceful protest, but also a completely absurd situation. Because while the authorities fight us in court, several tankers from Putin’s rusty and shady shadow fleet sail through the narrow Danish straits with sanctioned Russian oil every day.

“The oil still finds its way to Danish consumers, and the worn-out oil tankers are more than ever a ticking environmental bomb for our marine environment and coastlines. It honestly seems as if the Danish authorities have messed up their priorities.”

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Furthermore, Greenpeace is being accused of four actions its members carried out against Russian oil transports in Danish waters on March 18-31, 2022. The first three of these are about swimmers, kayaks, and a smaller sailing ship being used to stand in the way of several giant Russian oil tankers that were transiting the waters south of Langeland on their way from a Russian oil port, up through the Great Belt and up past Skagen.

The fourth action saw activists attempting to prevent a transshipment of Russian oil between two tankers in Ålbæk Bay just southeast of Skagen, with kayaks, swimmers, and small inflatable boats enabling the activists to impede the transshipment of oil for more than 24 hours before the police intervened. Greenpeace believes that this action helped to put a spotlight on Denmark’s complicity in Russian oil exports. 

With the authorities having the right to interpret the actions as an aggravating circumstance due to repeated offenses being committed, the public prosecutor’s office has demanded that a section be withdrawn from the Criminal Code, which makes it an aggravating circumstance that Greenpeace as an organization has previously been convicted of in similar cases. This implies that any imposed fines may be significantly larger, which, in turn, will impact activists’ ability to protest peacefully against large multinational oil companies, forms of injustice, further climate action, and more biodiversity. 

“Bringing that section into play, in our eyes, cannot be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to completely stop our activism by imposing some very large fines on us now and in the future. It testifies to a large democratic deficit when a society on the part of those in power will not accommodate peaceful protests,” added Scheller.

“This is especially true when it comes to protests against existential threats such as the climate crisis, but to a great extent also when it comes to our heavy dependence on Russian oil, which finances the rain of bombs on the Ukrainian civilian population. It is completely out of proportion, so we will have to fight strongly against it.”.

Moreover, the actions carried out by Greenpeace Denmark in the waters south of Langeland and off Frederikshavn were far from the only ones undertaken in 2022, as protests against Russian fossil fuel imports spread like wildfire across many European countries. These actions have also subsequently led to lawsuits in Great Britain and Finland.

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After chaining themselves to a jetty in May 2022 and forcing an oil tanker to overturn, ten Greenpeace activists were acquitted by a British court in November 2022, with the judge subsequently stating: “In my eyes, it is more the Russian war that can be described as terrorism. As I see it, it is the discharge of oil that is the potential crime.” 

In addition, nine Greenpeace activists were also acquitted by a Finnish court in May 2023, after preventing a cargo ship from unloading its cargo of Russian coal at a power plant in Helsinki in April 2022. At the time, the court underscored that the activists had acted out of a moral duty, adding that the protest was peaceful and the damage had to be considered minimal. The activists’ climbing equipment, confiscated after the action, was even ordered to be returned.  

Given the way other similar cases have played out, Greenpeace is seeking a full acquittal in the legal action brought by Denmark, as it claims that it used its rights to a peaceful protest to express itself through demonstrations, which are secured through Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Convention. 

“We do not believe that we have done anything illegal. These are peaceful protests that are carried out to draw attention to important social issues. Therefore, it is completely unheard of for the prosecutor to demand a doubling of the fine. Should the court nevertheless agree with the prosecutor’s office that Greenpeace has violated the shipping regulations, the punishment must in any case be proportional,” concluded Scheller.

Greenpeace is currently under attack from more than one side, as it is engaged in lawsuits with private multinational oil companies, like Shell and TotalEnergies, aside from being locked in a court battle with Denmark. 

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The group points out that a recent UN report described Denmark’s repression of environmental protests and civil disobedience as “a major threat” to human rights and democracy, singling the country out for its handling and criminalization of environmental activism.

Disputing green light for North Sea oil field

After the Danish Energy Agency approved a plan for the development and extraction of oil and gas from the Hejre field in the Danish part of the North Sea in April 2024, Greenpeace subsequently asked Kontra Advokater to investigate the laws and legal obligations to which Denmark is subject in the area, and whether the permit has been granted under such stipulations. 

Based on Kontra Advokater’s findings, the Hejre field is illegal as a correct and adequate assessment of the oil field’s consequences for the climate has not been carried out; the strategic environmental assessment the project falls under is from 2012, which is no longer comprehensive and should have been updated in 2020 at the latest; and the development of a new oil field in the North Sea is perceived to violate the Climate Act, which obliges Denmark to work actively to reach the 1.5-degree target. 

Since Kontra Advokater’s investigation showed that Denmark violated Danish and European legislation by allowing oil and gas to be extracted from the field, a complaint was submitted to the Energy Complaints Board, asking for the permit to be suspended.

Located 300 km from Demark’s west coast, the Hejre oil and gas field is operated by INEOS, which has a 100% stake in license 5/98 and an 80% operated interested in license 1/06, with Nordsøfonden holding the remaining 20% stake. This gas development in Dutch waters is planned as a tie-back to the South Arne field, utilizing the existing Hejre jacket structure.

Within the complaint to the regulator, Greenpeace said that Denmark was reneging on its environmental and climate responsibilities by greenlighting INEOS’ permit to operate the oil field. The board will decide whether the complaint has merit in the next few months.