Environmental groups have accused the government of "hypocrisy" after it emerged that ministers are set to approve the development of a new North Sea oil field just months before Britain hosts the Cop26 climate summit.
The Cambo heavy crude oil field off the coast of the Shetland Islands contains over 800 million barrels of oil. Under proposals submitted to the government, developers expect to extract 150-170 million of these barrels â— equivalent to operating 16 coal-fired power stations for a year.
The Cambo oil-field, co-owned by Siccar Point Energy and Shell, is due to start drilling in 2022 if approved. The site is expected to produce oil and gas until 2050, by which time Britain has pledged to be net carbon neutral.
Fourteen environmental organisations including Friends of the Earth and Client Earth are calling on the government to reject the proposals. And more than 50,000 people have signed two open letters to stop the Cambo oil project due to its “devastating” environmental impact.
Campaigners say that giving the green light to the project risks undermining the UK government’s position before the crucial Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow in November.
Leading climate scientist James Hansen, formerly Nasa’s top global warming researcher, has warned that the UK government “simply cannot aspire to international leadership on climate if its ministers blithely press forward on major fossil fuel projects”.
He added: “We are already well above the safe level of global atmospheric CO2 – witness the near-overtopping of numerous atoll-island nations and the recent heatwaves and fires in Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, California, and Australia.
“This implies that the major emitting nations need to get their act together, without further delay, to ensure that all fossil fuels within their reach bear their true cost to society, including their imposition on future generations and the environment.”
Campaigners also argue that the Cambo oil field project contradicts recommendations made by the International Energy Agency, which has called for “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects” if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
“Approving this field completely flies in the face of that [IEA] warning,” Sam Hunter Jones, a ClientEarth Lawyer, said. He added: “The UK is already facing scrutiny over its lack of progress in reducing emissions from its oil and gas production. Allowing this [Cambo] project to go ahead whilst claiming to be a global leader in climate action is another worrying example of the government’s growing hypocrisy ahead of Cop26.”
Local campaigners also fear that the Cambo oil field could open the door to similar projects being approved in the North Sea. Debra Nicolson, co-cordinator of the Shetland Greens, said: “New oil fields like Cambo are just going to encourage fossil fuel companies to bring more and more online and keep taking the oil out. From my local point of view, we need to transition away from oil towards renewable energy. “
The UK government says the “original licensing approval" for the Cambo oil field dates back to 2001. However, it is important to note that this licence was an exploration licence, which gives companies permission to seek out where oil and gas is in a particular location.
The Cambo project is now subject to a regulatory consenting process being run by the Oil and Gas Authority, part of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which is then expected to give approval. The public consultation on the proposals closed on Saturday 10 July.
A spokesperson for the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy responded to the criticisms of the project by environmental groups, saying: "While we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years, as recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee."
In March, the government announced the introduction of a “climate compatibility checkpoint” to ensure that any future oil and licences awarded would be “aligned with wider climate objectives”, including its legal target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. However, the test will be applied before projects are given an initial licence - so the Cambo project does not have to meet it.
Campaigners have described this as a “serious loophole”. Daniel Jones, head of research and policy at Uplift, which campaigns for a fossil fuel-free UK, said: "Cambo is just one of many major oil and gas projects that, because they’re already licensed, are set to be simply nodded through by ministers. This is a serious loophole, by design. The government’s whole climate plan for the North Sea oil and gas is smoke and mirrors.”
He added: “The so-called "climate compatibility checkpoint" is a nonsense. There’s no such thing as a ‘climate-compatible’ oil and gas licence in 2021 or beyond.”
The company behind the Cambo proposal is Siccar Point Energy, backed by private equity firm investors.
Jonathan Roger, chief executive of Siccar, said the development “supports the country’s energy transition, maintaining secure UK supply and creating more than 1,000 direct UK jobs and thousands more in the supply chain.”
He added: “We have proactively taken significant steps to minimise the emissions footprint through its design and Cambo will be built ‘electrification’ ready with the potential to use onshore renewable power when it becomes available in the future, in line with decarbonisation targets.”
Shell also has a 30 per cent stake in the project. A spokesperson for the company said they were unable to comment on the Cambo oil field licence application because Shell is not the operator. However they were able to comment on Shell’s overall company strategy.
They said: "Even the most ambitious scenarios tell us that as the energy system transitions, the world will continue to need oil and gas for decades to come.
“Targeted investment in our Upstream business will generate cash to help fund the growth of our new low-carbon portfolio. We are already investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels. We want to grow demand for these products and scale up our new energy businesses even more quickly.”
Mike Tholen, sustainability director of trade association Oil and Gas UK, said: “The UK offshore oil and gas industry is changing and applying low carbon thinking to all its projects, including the Shetland-based Cambo project, to support the transition to greener, cleaner energy.”
“This project has been in the planning process since the government granted its exploration licence back in 2001 and included in long-term energy projections.”
“Cutting investment in UK projects will do little to reduce demand, which would instead be met by resources produced in other countries with no jobs, taxes paid or support to our energy supply chain, building a renewable capability from a firm business base.”
But environmental campaigners protesting against the Cambo oil field are not convinced by the arguments in defence of the project by the government and owners Siccar Point and Shell.
“Burning fossil fuels is the key driver of climate breakdown and every extra barrel of oil and gas produced speeds us closer to greater devastation,” Caroline Rance, from Friends of the Earth Scotland, said.
“The huge response to the open letter shows the public are, once again, ahead of their governments on climate issues. It would be completely indefensible for the UK government to approve this development, and would further damage their credibility on climate action ahead of the UN climate conference Cop26 later this year.”
On Monday, a group of climate activists staged a theatrical protest outside Shell HQ in London urging the government to reject plans for the Cambo oil field.
The activists from Fossil Free London depicted Boris Johnson as Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, while figures representing Shell and Siccar Point Energy poured “oil” onto him.
“Boris Johnson is keen in this year of Cop26 to put forward the illusion of climate action, Joanna Warrington, an activist from Fossil Free London said. “But we’ve covered an image of Boris Johnson in oil today to show that he is secretly frolicing in the fossil fuels suffocating our planet.”