Despite criticism from environmentalists, scientists, and even some leading politicians, the UK government has opened a new licensing round for the North Sea oil and gas exploration. The move, which goes against the country’s commitments to tackle the climate crisis, will offer around 900 locations for exploration, with as many as 100 licenses set to be awarded. Along with the recent fracking announcement, this suggests that the current UK leadership may be less inclined to pay attention to the environment.
The British government argued that extracting more fossil fuels will create jobs and strengthen UK’s energy security, claiming is less environmentally harmful than importing fossil fuels from abroad. Climate Minister Graham Stuart said the plans are “actually good for the environment,” as burning their own fossil fuels would be better.
However, the decision is at odds with climate scientists who argue fossil fuel projects should be closed down and not expanded. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body of climate science, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have said there can be no new fossil projects to meet agreed climate targets. In addition, experts have argued that the move won't even help the UK economically all that much, while the environmental cost will be significant.
The move is also fueled by the ongoing gas crisis that looms over the world this winter.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has limited energy supplies across Europe and pushed gas and electricity higher, urging countries to focus urgently on finding new energy sources. The organization that looks out for UK’s electricity grid has said that planned blackouts would be needed this winter due to the limited gas supplies from Russia.
"Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine means it is now more important than ever that we make the most of sovereign energy resources, strengthening our energy security now and into the future," Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said in a statement, insisting that the licensing round will also boost the UK’s economy.
But you can't really blame everything on Putin, and all the way back in March, Scotland leader Nicola Sturgeon cautioned that more oil from the North Sea isn't the way to go here.
Net zero net shmero
Exploiting the reserves on the UK Continental Shelf could lead to thousands of millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent being released into the atmosphere, a report by the NGO Global Energy Monitor. The amount of emissions produced would be much higher than the UK’s legally-binding budget to limit emissions between 2023 and 2027.
The organization analyzed the potential production at 20 of the largest underdeveloped fields in the North Sea. It found that if those reserves were extracted in the next three years it could produce 900 million tons, more than what most countries produce annually – making the fields incompatible with global climate targets.
The licensing process will be accelerated in areas of the North Sea that are near already existing infrastructure and so have the potential to be developed quickly, according to the North Sea Transition Authority. However, both campaigners and the oil industry agree reserves aren’t big enough to have a significant impact on the process consumers pay for energy.
"This government's energy policy benefits fossil fuel companies and no-one else," said Philip Evans, energy transition campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said in a statement. "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."
In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference this week, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss only mentioned the climate crisis once, claiming she would protect the environment and deliver on net zero targets by boosting renewables, nuclear energy and gas fields. The government has said natural gas has a role in the transition to net-zero emissions.
The UK recently authorized fracking, a controversial oil and gas extraction process, lifting a ban that had been introduced in 2019 following several tremors. Fracking involves injecting chemicals, sand and water into cracks at high pressure, widening them to allow the extraction of fossil fuels from shale formations. The government dismissed any risks from the activity.