Plans to approve six new North Sea drilling sites will “blow” the UK’s net zero climate target and generate the equivalent of 420 million barrels of oil if they go ahead, new analysis has revealed.
Six North Sea oil and gas field projects are expected to be given approval to begin drilling as part of a government drive to ease soaring energy costs in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The six identified sites of Jackdaw, Marigold, Brodick, Rosebank, Catcher and Tolmount East can produce a total of around 421 million barrels of oil equivalent, according to new figures by the Uplift climate campaign group, based on Rystad Energy data.
Uplift told The Independent that extracting and burning all the oil and gas from these six sites would produce a total 205 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of almost half the UK’s yearly total emissions.
Tessa Khan, director of Uplift, said the expansion of fossil fuel production on that scale would destroy any chance the government has of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“If the government fast-tracks these fields for drilling, it will blow the UK’s net zero climate targets,” she said.
“The government is already off-track for meeting those targets, and yet it’s choosing to make the situation much worse by opening up new fossil fuel developments.”
The Independent understands that the government will confirm its backing for a new round of North Sea exploration licences – which allow companies to bid for certain areas beyond the six fields – when its “energy security strategy” is set out in the coming days.
Boris Johnson has said he wants to “remove barriers” to increased North Sea oil and gas production following the spike in energy prices and the desire to end reliance on Russian gas.
The PM claimed that using Britain’s “hydrocarbon resources” would not undermine the net zero target – but opposition parties said the new focus on fossil fuels in the North Sea “flies in the face” of the 2050 commitment.
Ministers are also keen to see the fast-tracking of final permits at six North Sea sites which already have licences, The Independent understands. However, approval of the sites first reported on last month lies with the regulator North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA).
Extraction and consumption of oil and gas at the sites would produce a total 205 million tonnes of CO2 or equivalent emissions in the lifetime of the fields, Uplift has estimated. By comparison, the UK’s annual total greenhouse gas emissions is 405 million tonnes, according to the government.
“There is almost no public gain from opening up these reserves – the vast majority of which is oil for export,” said Ms Khan. “The only winners are the oil and gas companies who have been whispering in the PM’s ear.”
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, said that much of the oil and gas would be sold to countries overseas – but the emissions created by production alone would “make it harder” for the UK to reach net zero targets.
“It undermines the UK’s attempt to provide leadership on net zero and keep us within 1.5C,” he said. “If we start to make an exception for the oil and gas industry, where does it end? There’s risk of the net zero commitment unravelling completely.”
Over and above the six sites ready to be drilled, Treasury minister Simon Clarke has signalled the government’s backing for a new round of oil and gas exploration. “It’s our intention to unlock more production capacity in the North Sea,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight earlier this week.
The NSTA has not be able to hold a licensing round since 2019. The government effectively put a moratorium on the process when it launched a review of whether current energy policies were compatible with climate goals.
However, the Financial Times reported this week that the draft text for the “climate compatibility checkpoint” in the licensing process has been rewritten, and will allow the government to overlook climate concerns in the event of “urgent national security concerns”.
Government plans to increase North Sea oil and gas production, says Simon Clarke
The Liberal Democrats’ climate change spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse MP, said: “Fast-tracking fossil fuel extraction is plainly irresponsible and flies in the face of the government’s net zero commitments.”
Ms Hobhouse added: “Every aspect of how we live needs to be sense-checked in light of the climate emergency, and that obviously includes new oil and gas exploration. The Conservative government are threatening our future.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas said the renewed focus on North Sea fossil fuels showed Mr Johnson had merely been “showboating” at the Cop26 conference.
“The prime minister claimed it was ‘one minute to midnight’ in our fight against climate change,” she told The Independent. “Now we know that all he said at that critical conference was nothing but global showboating.”
Ms Lucas added: “New North Sea oil and gas would lock us into millions of tonnes of emissions to take us well beyond our net zero targets, whilst also making absolutely no difference to household energy bills.”
Greenpeace and other groups have poured scorn on the idea that a new push for oil and gas will ease immediate supply woes – pointing out that it has taken as long as 28 years between initial exploration work and production in the North Sea.
“The blind rush to boost oil and gas production … it’s not going to help with the current situation,” said Mr Parr. “The government may say it helps with energy security in the long-term. But in the long-term we need to eliminate fossil fuels.”
However, energy industry chiefs have suggested that some exploratory sites could be ready to produce oil and gas relatively quickly.
Andy Samuel, chief executive of the NSTA regulator, has said he believed the body would be able to resume with exploration licences “this year”. He also said that some sites have oil and gas discoveries which are “pretty much ready to go”.
Mr Johnson has indicated he also wants to boost Britain’s supply of both renewables and nuclear energy as part of the forthcoming “energy security strategy” he promised to deliver this month.
Business and energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng sparked a cabinet row after he revealed that the government was thinking about bringing the current moratorium on new onshore wind farms to an end.
Mr Johnson has reportedly been warned by ministers of a mass rebellion among Tory MPs if he allows fresh onshore wind farm construction. One told The Times: “I don’t want it. My constituents don’t want it … The last thing we need is another revolt from Tory MPs.”
A government spokesperson said: “As part of our upcoming energy supply strategy, we are considering various options on how we can supercharge our renewable and nuclear energy capacity while supporting our North Sea oil and gas industry.
“No decisions have yet been made. There will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming decades while we transition to low-carbon energy.”