UK faces backlash over approval of new North Sea oil and gas drilling

Sea oil

The UK government has given the green light to a new oil and gas drilling project in the North Sea, sparking outrage from environmental groups and activists who say it undermines the country’s climate commitments.

Sea oil

Rosebank field to produce 500m barrels of oil

The project, known as the Rosebank field, is located about 80 miles northwest of the Shetland Islands and is operated by Norway’s Equinor and the UK’s Ithaca Energy. It is one of the largest untapped deposits in UK waters, holding an estimated 350 million barrels of oil and 150 million barrels of gas equivalent1.

The North Sea Transition Authority, the government-owned body that regulates the oil and gas sector, said it had approved the Rosebank Field Development Plan on Wednesday, allowing the owners to proceed with their project2. The authority said the approval was in accordance with its published guidance and took into account net zero considerations throughout the project’s lifecycle3.

The project is expected to start producing in 2026-2027 and will involve an initial investment of $3.8 billion (£2.8 billion) by the operators4. The project is also expected to create up to 4,000 jobs and generate £8.1 billion of direct investment in the UK economy5.

Environmentalists condemn the decision as ‘morally obscene’

However, the decision has been met with fierce criticism from environmental campaigners and activists, who say it contradicts the UK’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and its role as the host of the COP26 climate summit in November.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the decision “the greatest act of environmental vandalism in my lifetime” and said it showed that the government was “putting the profits of oil companies above everyday people”6.

Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Philip Evans said the decision was a “colossal failure” and that the UK would “make a fool of itself” in the run-up to COP26 if it continued to approve new oil and gas licences7.

Uplift, a campaign group that coordinated the Stop Rosebank campaign, said it was considering a legal challenge against the government, arguing that the decision was unlawful and violated the Paris Agreement, the global deal to limit global warming to 1.5C8.

Government defends the decision as part of a ‘careful transition’

The government, however, defended the decision as part of a “careful transition” away from fossil fuels, saying that it would support the UK’s energy security, economic growth and jobs, while also reducing emissions.

Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho said the UK was committed to investing in renewable energy, but that it would still need oil and gas as part of the mix on the path to net zero.

She said the project would make the UK “more secure against tyrants like (Vladimir) Putin”, referring to the recent energy crisis that caused prices to soar after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She also said that the project and other new developments would be “significantly less emissions intensive than previous ones” and that the sector would face targets to reduce emissions by 10% by 2025, 25% by 2027 and 50% by 2030.

The government also said it would invest up to £16 billion by 2030 in clean technologies such as hydrogen production and carbon capture, usage and storage, which would help cut pollution by up to 60 million tonnes by 2030 and support up to 40,000 jobs.

UK’s oil and gas policy under scrutiny

The UK’s oil and gas policy has been under scrutiny in recent months, as the country faces pressure to show leadership on climate action ahead of COP26.

In March, the government announced a new licensing round for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, despite threats of a legal battle from climate campaigners.

In June, the International Energy Agency, a global energy watchdog, said that no new oil and gas fields should be developed if the world wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

In September, the UK delayed the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, as part of a series of measures to ease the burden on consumers and businesses amid rising energy costs.

The UK is not the only country facing criticism over its oil and gas policy. Denmark, which has pledged to end fossil fuel extraction by 2050, recently approved a new oil and gas project in the North Sea, sparking protests from environmentalists.

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