North Sea oilfields could help contain climate change, says report

Jillian Ambrose
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

North Sea oil executives believe the ageing fossil fuel basin may still lead a global climate revolution by providing a testbed for clean energy breakthroughs.

An industry report has revealed that the North Sea could emerge as an unlikely climate hero by becoming a global showcase for the energy transition after decades producing fossil fuels.

The basin has produced almost 40bn barrels of oil over the last 40 years, but as oilfields decline the empty caverns could be used to store carbon emissions, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The advisory firm added that North Sea gas producers may eventually be able to produce zero-carbon hydrogen by using electricity generated by offshore wind turbines to split the carbon molecules from natural gas.

The North Sea is already equipped with major offshore infrastructure, such as pipelines and platforms, which could be used to help transport and store the carbon emissions captured by UK factories and hydrogen producers.

Drew Stevenson, PwC’s UK energy sector leader, said there is “huge potential” for the North Sea to help meet the “necessary urgency to move to a low-carbon world” by focusing on low-carbon innovations and new technology.

PwC based its report on interviews with 20 key energy industry executives to pinpoint how the North Sea could adapt to a net zero-carbon future.

“The appetite exists for the North Sea energy industry to play a significant role in the transition: investor sentiment is rapidly becoming more committed to low carbon technologies while smaller exploration and production companies are looking at ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. All of this creates an opportunity for the North Sea to lead the way in the energy transition,” Stevenson said.

The report comes after the government’s climate watchdog warned over the summer that the North Sea would need to embrace technology, such as carbon capture, to earn a role in the UK’s low-carbon future.

Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, told the Guardian following its climate progress report in July that the North Sea industry must make sure that it is part of the UK’s net-zero carbon story.

“It would, of course, be an easier task to simply say that we shouldn’t bring oil and gas out of the ground but we know that there will potentially be some uses for those hydrocarbons, in particular for the production of things like hydrogen,” he said.

“The key test for whether that can ever be a part of the future scenario is whether the sector itself is supportive of carbon capture and storage and whether the resources in the North Sea are used in an effective net-zero way. If there was ever a point for the industry to feel challenged, it’s now,” he added.