updated 11/12/2010 9:27:33 AM ET 2010-11-12T14:27:33

Environmental activist group Greenpeace on Friday filed a legal claim to force the government to stop deepwater drilling in the North Sea, which it says threatens the environment and could even cause oil spills similar to the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Greenpeace said it wants licensing halted until the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, are ascertained.

The legal challenge, filed with the High Court in London, covers 20 oil production licenses and could block future licensing rounds if successful. Greenpeace argues that these licenses are close to environmentally sensitive sites that support whales and dolphins.

"The government is handing out oil drilling licenses left, right and centre as if the Deepwater Horizon disaster never happened," said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace.

"The oil industry is drilling in riskier and more dangerous places in U.K. waters, where a spill could be a disaster for wildlife."

Last month, the British government granted Chevron Corp. permission to begin the first new deepwater drilling in the North Sea since the Gulf oil spill. At the time, Greenpeace blockaded the site, the Lagavulin prospect in waters north of the Shetland isles off the Scottish coast, and threatened legal action to stop the drilling.

The activist group said that in the wake of BP's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, the government "should not be handing out licenses until a proper assessment, required by law, has been carried out."

Britain's Conservative-led government has rejected suggestions for a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the North Sea.

It argues that regulation in the North Sea is much tougher than in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the BP spill and has also stressed that the country needs traditional oil and gas energy supplies until it can wean itself off fossil fuels.

The government has increased the number of rig inspectors in the North Sea — which has 24 drilling rigs and 280 oil and gas installations — following the Gulf disaster.

But Greenpeace and other critics say a moratorium on deep sea drilling is needed, citing a Health and Safety Executive report in August that showed a spike in accidental leaks and serious injuries to workers on offshore platforms in 2009 and 2010.

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