he UK government has announced plans to allow a big expansion of drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea in a move that environmental activists have described as a taking a “wrecking ball” to the country’s climate commitments.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Monday that he hoped the plans would provide the UK with domestically-sourced energy while it transitions to a net zero economy by 2050.
“Even when we’ve reached net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will come from oil and gas. But there are those who would rather that it come from hostile states than from supplies we have here at home,” Sunak said in a statement.
He also announced plans to build two new carbon capture and storage sites in the North Sea, to be completed by 2030, which would take the country’s total to four.
Carbon capture facilities work at the source of the pollution by putting emissions into contact with a liquid solvent, which extracts the carbon dioxide in a process called chemical scrubbing.
That reduces the amount of carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. The carbon can then be stored in products like cement, or buried deep underground.
The UK announcement comes despite evidence that the climate crisis is accelerating, and flies in the face of a previous warning from the International Energy Agency that there must be no new investment in oil and gas exploration if the world is to have any chance of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.
Sunak’s office said he had committed to granting “hundreds” of new licenses for companies to drill for oil and gas offshore, with the first 100 expected to be granted in the fall.
The licensing process, overseen by the North Sea Transition Authority, will be more flexible to allow companies to drill near currently licensed areas, “unlocking vital reserves which can be brought online faster,” Sunak’s office said in a statement.
However, the process would still apply a “climate compatibility test” to all prospective licenses, it added.
Simon Roddy, senior vice president of Shell UK’s exploration and production business, said in a statement that the announcement of a new carbon capture and storage project in Scotland was “an important step forward” for the industry.
“[The project] is a central part of plans to decarbonize North Sea operations, and to store emissions from other parts of Scottish industry,” he said.
Climate groups have criticized Sunak’s announcement as a setback for the UK’s environmental goals.
“Extracting more fossil fuels from the North Sea will send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments at a time when we should be investing in a just transition to a low carbon economy and our own abundant renewables,” Lyndsay Walsh, Oxfam’s climate change policy advisor, said in a Monday statement.
Philip Evans, oil and gas transition campaigner for Greenpeace UK, also said Monday that the government had “decided to row back on key climate policies, attempted to toxify net zero, and recycled old myths about North Sea drilling.”
“Relying on fossil fuels is terrible for our energy security, the cost of living, and the climate,” Evans said.
Sunak’s announcement puts his Conservative government at loggerheads with the opposition Labour Party, which has called for a ban on all new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, and a funneling of new investment into the country’s renewable energy industry.