Greenpeace is taking the government to court to try to stop new UK deep-sea drilling licences being issued until the causes of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are fully established.
The environmental group's lawyers filed a claim at the High Court asking for the right to seek a judicial review.
If successful, more than 20 oil production licences could be affected and future licensing rounds halted.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has declined to comment.
Greenpeace lawyers argue that the drilling licences are close to environmentally sensitive sites which support species such as whales and dolphins and are legally protected.
They say that in the wake of the BP disaster in April, the government cannot be certain that drilling in these areas will not result in environmental damage, so should not be handing out licences until a proper assessment, required by law, has been carried out.
The papers lodged at the High Court will go before a single judge, sitting in private, who will decide whether Greenpeace has an "arguable case" which should go to a full hearing.
The explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 workers, led to the worst environmental disaster in US history, polluting hundreds of miles of coast.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "The government is handing out oil drilling licences left, right and centre as if the Deepwater Horizon disaster never happened. And they've got to stop.
"The oil industry is drilling in riskier and more dangerous places in UK waters, where a spill could be a disaster for wildlife."
He added: "Long-term energy security must come from lowering demand through efficiency savings, not scraping the bottom of the oil barrel in fragile habitats and treacherous seas like those west of Shetland."
Greenpeace has won legal challenges to nuclear power and the third Heathrow runway in recent years.