UK defies climate warnings with new oil and gas licences

The UK has opened a new licensing round for companies to explore for oil and gas in the North Sea. Nearly 900 locations are being offered for exploration, with as many as 100 licences set to be awarded. The decision is at odds with international climate scientists who say fossil fuel projects should be closed down, not expanded. They say there can be no new projects if there is to be a chance of keeping global temperature rises under 1.5C. 

Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body for climate science and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have expressed such a view.

The government’s own advisers on climate change said in a report earlier this year that the best way to ease consumers’ pain from high energy prices was to stop using fossil fuels rather than drill for more of them.

Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg says the new exploration will boost energy security and support skilled jobs. 

And supporters of new exploration insist it is compatible with the government’s legal commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They say the North Sea fossil fuel will replace imported fuel and so have a lower carbon footprint in production and transportation. 

Licences are being made available for 898 sectors of the North Sea – known as blocks.

“Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine means it is now more important than ever that we make the most of sovereign energy resources,” Mr Rees-Mogg said in a statement.

The licensing process will be fast-tracked in parts of the North Sea that are near existing infrastructure and so have the potential to be developed quickly, according to the North Sea Transition Authority. It says the average time between discovery and first production is close to five years but that gap is shrinking. 

Both campaigners and the oil industry agree that the reserves will not be large enough to have a significant impact on the prices consumers pay for energy in the UK. 

“This government’s energy policy benefits fossil fuel companies and no-one else,” said Philip Evans, energy transition campaigner for Greenpeace UK.

“New oil and gas licences won’t lower energy bills for struggling families this winter or any winter soon nor provide energy security in the medium term.”

North Sea oil and gas production peaked about 20 years ago and since then the UK has gone from producing more oil and gas than it needs, to importing it from other countries. 

Offshore Energies UK, which represents the oil and gas industry say there could be as much as 15 billion barrels of oil left in the North Sea. It says that new fields will be less polluting than their predecessors and in a statement said there would be an environmental “bonus”. 

The decision to launch a licensing round follows the publication of the government’s “Climate Compatibility Checkpoint“, which “aims to ensure” the new exploration aligns with the UK’s climate objectives. 

The checkpoint criteria covers emissions from oil and gas production and how those emissions compare internationally but take no account of the carbon dioxide emitted when the oil and gas are burnt.