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Government climate leadership under fire over North Sea energy transition

Emily Beament
·5-min read

The Government has been accused of failing to show climate leadership after its new deal for the North Sea energy sector did not rule out licences for further oil and gas drilling.

The North Sea Transition Deal includes targets for the oil and gas sector to reduce emissions over the next decade, and up to £16 billion of government and private investment in cleaner energy technology to support jobs and cut pollution.

The Government also said it will introduce a “climate compatibility checkpoint” so that future oil and gas licences that are awarded are aligned with wider climate objectives, which require cutting UK emissions near to zero by 2050.

And, from the end of March, the UK will no longer provide financial support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas, fulfilling a pledge made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year as he sought to drive international climate action.

The industry welcomed the deal, saying it secures energy supplies and jobs, but it swiftly came under fire from environmental groups, which pointed to Denmark and Ireland’s moves to bring an end to new drilling licences.

Greenpeace criticised a “colossal failure” of leadership by the Government as it prepares to host international UN Cop26 climate talks in the UK, because it has not ruled out new UK oil and gas licences in the North Sea.

Mel Evans, head of Greenpeace UK’s oil campaign, said: “While the Government has rightly recognised the need to set a global example in ending fossil fuel finance abroad, its domestic plans for oil and gas continue to fall woefully short, giving mixed messages on the world stage.”

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Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said the absence of an end date for extracting fossil fuels from the North Sea is a “glaring omission”.

“With the UK hosting this year’s UN climate summit for the first time ever, this is surely the time for bold action on ending our reliance on fossil fuels,” he said.

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And Friends of the Earth Scotland’s just transition campaigner Ryan Morrison said: “The science on this is already crystal clear: burning fossil fuels is the key driver of this crisis so to avoid climate breakdown there can be no new licences and existing production must be wound down over the next decade – a new ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’ isn’t going to change that reality.”

The deal includes investment of up to £3 billion to replace fossil-fuel power supplies on oil and gas platforms with renewable energy, up to £3 billion for technology to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel energy and industrial processes, and up to £10 billion for hydrogen production.

Officials said it is expected to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60 million tonnes by 2030, including 15 million tonnes from oil and gas extraction on the UK Continental Shelf, which currently accounts for 3.5% of the country’s emissions directly through production.

It will also support up to 40,000 jobs across the supply chain, the Government said.

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Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “We will not leave oil and gas workers behind in the United Kingdom’s irreversible shift away from fossil fuels.

“Through this landmark sector deal, we will harness the skills, capabilities and pent-up private investment potential of the oil and gas sector to power the green industrial revolution, turning its focus to the next-generation clean technologies the UK needs to support a green economy.”

Chief executive of trade association Oil & Gas UK Deirdre Michie said the North Sea transition deal will “unlock billions of pounds of investment and see Government and industry work together to deliver a homegrown energy transition, realising innovative low-carbon solutions that can be exported globally”.

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Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, called for a “just transition” for all workers across the offshore oil and gas sector, from catering staff and divers to those on drilling rigs.

“North Sea oil and gas will have a role in the energy mix which is compatible with net-zero ambitions, as long as this deal plays its part in securing the domestic supply of resources and jobs throughout the supply chain.”

He said the industry must be compelled to invest more in achieving the shift for workers into offshore wind, hydrogen and technology to capture and permanently store underground carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Otherwise, “jobs will be lost and growing skills gaps will lock local workers out of the UK Government’s deal and any wider green recovery”, he warned.

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