UK Government threatened with legal action over North Sea oil and gas expansion

·5-min read
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack supports North Sea oil and gas expansion
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack supports North Sea oil and gas expansion

UK ministers are facing legal action after confirming more than 100 new oil and gas licences will be opened up in the North Sea next month.

The UK Government is using the Russian invasion of Ukraine to attempt to justify expanding fossil fuel extraction as part of a strategy for more home-grown energy production.

The UK currently imports around nine per cent of its oil from Russia.

The new round of licensing for is expected to be launched by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) in early October.

As well as backing the NSTA’s new licensing round, fracking will be allowed in England – but not in Scotland.

Under the new licensing round, which follows the outcome of the climate compatibility checkpoint, the NSTA is expected to make a number of new ‘blocks’ of the UK Continental Shelf available, for applicants to bid for licences.

The checkpoint was drawn up in consultation with the oil and gas sector.

Heather Plumpton, policy analyst at Green Alliance, has branded the checkpoint as “meaningless”.

She added: “Even if the oil and gas industry fails to show that its operations are compatible with achieving net zero, the minister can still choose to grant another licensing round for more drilling in the North Sea.

“The UK Government is risking its global reputation as a leader on tackling climate change and its commitment to keep warming to 1.5 degrees as set out under the Paris Agreement.”

Greenpeace accused the UK Government of “pandering to outdated, fringe fossil fuel interests”.

Philip Evans, an energy security campaigner with the group, said: “New fossil fuel licences are the opposite of energy security.

“We believe this licensing round is unlawful and we’ll be looking at taking legal action.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland also made its opposition clear, with campaigner Freya Aitchison saying: “In ploughing forward with this new licensing round, the UK Government is effectively denying the reality of the climate emergency.”

Ms Aitchison called on the Scottish Government to “stand up to these reckless plans to expand fossil fuels and hand out permits for oil and gas companies to explore and drill in the North Sea”.

She added: “These plans will lock us into a climate-destroying energy system for decades to come, entrenching reliance on this volatile industry in places like Aberdeen, and leaving people all across Scotland exposed to rocketing energy bills.”

The UK Government believes the new licences will enable developers to search for commercially viable oil and gas sources within the areas of their licences.

Developers will still need to seek regulatory approval for any activities conducted within their licensed area, such as drilling or construction of infrastructure.

SNP Net Zero and Energy Secretary, Michael Matheson, stressed the Scottish Government position is “clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations”.

He added: “It is alarming that the UK Government appears to believe that licensing of more than 100 new oil and gas fields will not ‘materially impact’ the ability of the UK to reach net-zero by 2050, and reckless to believe that this approach is in any way consistent with our climate obligations.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “The Prime Minister is moving swiftly to ensure the security of our energy supply and exploring the further potential of the North Sea is crucial to this.

“This new round of oil and gas licensing, which is expected to lead to more than 100 new licences, will not only safeguard our domestic supply and protect UK households, businesses and public services from volatile global prices, it will also support more than 70,000 energy sector jobs in Scotland.

“Supporting this sector has always been a vital part of our net zero strategy, ensuring we have energy resilience while investing in renewable sources such as wind, tidal and solar power.”

Analysis: New licences show UK climate leadership has evaporated since COP26

HeraldScotland: Alok Sharma, the president of COP26
HeraldScotland: Alok Sharma, the president of COP26

Alok Sharma, the president of COP26

THE UK Government has put beyond doubt its support for North Sea oil and gas – less than a year after pressuring the developing world to end burning fossil fuels.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has warned over a global “addiction” to fossil fuels and has labelled new investments in oil, coal and gas “moral and economic madness”.

Less than 12 months ago, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the UK Government successfully led efforts for a global effort to phase down coal.

Ramping up renewables is the least costly method or securing energy – both to the planet and the economy.

Before wholesale gas prices skyrocketed, North Sea oil and gas producers actually received more funding from the UK Government for decommissioning than they paid in tax.

From an energy security argument, the UK Government’s assertion that ramping up domestic oil and gas production is also flawed.

Crude oil is not in big demand in the UK market – meaning that more than three quarters of North Sea oil is usually exported.

The UK Government’s position as fossil fuels fanatics appears to be based primarily on ideology.

Ministers believe they are backing Scotland’s oil and gas sector. The industry has a shelf life – before shifting operations fully to renewables or emerging industries like hydrogen and carbon capture.

So maybe what workers really need is a vision of a future sustainable industry that doesn’t wreck the climate, instead of teetering on a cliff edge once every drop of fossil fuels has been used.