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Environmental group Greenpeace today said its lawyers have threatened the Cameron coalition government with legal action over deep-water drilling plans.

The group has delivered a formal “letter before action” to the government, which accuses ministers of granting licences for new deep-water drilling before the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the US Gulf of Mexico have been properly established.

The Deepwater Horizon incident has forced a global rethink of exploration in deep-water plays.

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: “This is just the start of a long campaign.

“The world needs to go beyond oil, but here in the UK the government is waving through applications for new drilling as if the Deepwater Horizon explosion never happened.”

Sauven added: “The Gulf of Mexico disaster was a game changer, so ministers should suspend new deep-water licences and start investing in clean alternatives instead.”

In the legal letter, Greenpeace asked the government for an undertaking that it will stop the UK licensing process for new offshore drilling and consult fully on the scope of a new, full environmental assessment in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The 20 April explosion led to the deaths of 11 workers and the release of around five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sauven added: “It is our view that for the government to carry on licensing for new offshore drilling without a new environmental assessment is in breach of European and UK environmental law.”

The letter cites a series of UK environmental assessments for offshore drilling, dated from the months before the Deepwater Horizon, including one which concedes that “the feasibility of containment and recovery [of oil] in offshore locations is generally considered low in the UK”, and which admits that “there is currently no capacity for large scale containment and recovery in the offshore UKCS [UK Continental Shelf]”.

The government has said that the area to the West of Shetland, where much of the proposed deep-water activity is scheduled, is a “particularly challenging location” and yet insists that “no depth constraints [for drilling] are envisaged.”

The government has 14 days within which to respond to Greenpeace’s letter. If there is no undertaking, then Greenpeace will claim for judicial review of the government’s decision.

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