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Sunak set to outline North Sea energy opportunities as row over net zero policy rumbles on

todayAugust 11, 2023 4

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Sunak set to outline North Sea energy opportunities as row over net zero policy rumbles on

Rishi Sunak has defended a planned expansion of oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, claiming it is “entirely consistent” with the government’s goal to reach net zero by 2050.

Granting more than 100 new oil and gas licences off the coast of Scotland will “boost British energy independence” and “reduce reliance on hostile states”, Number 10 said.

But critics claimed the decision sent “a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments”, with one Tory MP warning the prime minister would end up “on the wrong side of history” if it went ahead.

A section of the BP Eastern Trough Area Project (ETAP) oil platform is seen in the North Sea

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The prime minister has approved more North Sea oil and gas projects

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The move also puts down a marker between the government and Labour, which has proposed a block on all domestic new oil and gas drilling as part of its strategy to achieve zero-carbon electricity by 2030.

Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband accused Mr Sunak of lurching towards “a culture war on climate” to make up for “13 years of failed Tory energy policy”.

But ministers have stressed the need to use North Sea fossil fuel resources, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), which is responsible for regulating the oil, gas and carbon storage industries, is currently running the 33rd offshore oil and gas licensing round, and it expects to award more than 100 new licences in the autumn.

However, such moves have prompted alarm from climate campaigners, with the government already facing opposition to any development of Rosebank, 80 miles northwest of Shetland.

Speaking on a visit to Aberdeenshire, Mr Sunak said using domestic oil and gas saved “two, three, four times the amount of carbon emissions” than “shipping it from halfway around the world”, and granting new drilling licences was “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”.

Asked specifically whether Rosebank would be approved, he added: “Licensing decisions are obviously made the normal way but what I’d say is that – entirely consistent with transitioning to net zero – that we use the energy that we’ve got here at home because we’re going to need it for decades.”

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Government needs to pursue net zero targets – Lord Deben

The prime minister has also confirmed locations for two new carbon capture usage and storage clusters – with billions expected to be pumped into the schemes.

Carbon capture sees polluting fumes collected to either be used elsewhere or stored underground instead of going into the air, and is viewed as an increasingly important tool in achieving net zero.

The Acorn carbon capture project in North East Scotland – a joint venture between Shell and other firms – and the Viking project in the Humber will be “vital to driving forward and investing in clean technologies that we need to realise our net zero target”, Downing Street said.

But while ministers predict the move could support up to 50,000 jobs, the target for the two new sites to be up and running isn’t until 2030.

Speaking to broadcasters, Mr Sunak said: “It is really important for everyone to recognise that even in 2050 when we are at net zero, it is forecast that around a quarter of our energy needs will still come from oil and gas – that’s why technologies like carbon capture and storage are important.

“But what is important then is we get that oil and gas in the best possible way and that means getting it here at home.

“[It is] better for our energy security, not being reliant on foreign dictators, better for jobs, for example 100,000 supported here in Scotland, but also better for the climate because if we are going to need it, far better to have it here at home.”

He added: “Everyone should be excited about the prospect of us leading the world, transitioning to net zero and strengthening our energy security. That’s the right balance and that’s what I’m delivering as prime minister.”

Tories focusing policies on voters it can win – not environmentalists they have lost

Rishi Sunak wants to set a dividing line with Labour.

The prime minister’s announcement on hundreds of new North Sea licences in Scotland today comes as the government accuses Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer of risking the “lights going out” with his only policy to ban new drilling.

The PM is pitching himself as being on the side of the people, framing Labour as being in cahoots with Just Stop Oil.

Those claims are obviously far-fetched – Sir Keir has been highly critical of the campaign group – but polling does suggest some environmental policies are unpopular with Conservative voters.

The cost of living and the NHS tend to come top of voter priorities, a YouGov poll for The Times suggests this morning, and seven out of 10 Tory voters are against the 2030 ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles.

The government maintains it is committed to that deadline, and to reaching net zero by 2050, but the language has changed since the Uxbridge by-election.

Mr Sunak is now talking about a “pragmatic and proportionate” approach to net zero.

It’s also worth remembering that parts of North East Scotland are important Conservative election battlegrounds – West Aberdeenshire is energy minister Andrew Bowie’s seat with just an 800 majority, for example.

A government source told me they believe Number 10 are focusing on votes they can win, not the environmentally-minded who the Conservatives will already have lost.

The PM will hope pledging jobs and investment in the North Sea will chime with the people he wants to listen.

Tory MP Chris Skidmore, who has long campaigned on green issues, was furious at the plans for new drilling licences, tweeting: “This is the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves.”

The former energy minister, who has announced he is stepping down at the next election to focus on the fight for net zero, added: “It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries and not fossil fuels.

“It is on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment, and it is on the wrong side of history that will not look favourably on the decision taken today.

“Worryingly, this decision has also been announced when MPs are on recess, unable to hold the government to account. I will be writing to the Speaker to call for an emergency debate as soon as we return.”

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SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn has said it’s important to be conscious of energy security.

Mr Skidmore’s sentiment was echoed by WWF UK’s Kate White, who said the move would “do nothing to cut household energy bills or shore up our energy security – it will simply line the pockets of the extractive industry while the world burns”.

Ms White added: “If Rishi Sunak is serious about ‘powering up Britain’ the solution to the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis is in affordable, clean energy; better insulation for our homes; and restoring our natural world.”

The head of Oxfam Scotland, Jamie Livingstone, also called the new licensing rounds a “short-sighted and selfish decision by the UK government” which “flies in the face of climate science and common sense”.

He added: “The UN has made clear that we must end our global addiction to fossil fuels, so this decision sends a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments.”

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Meanwhile, Labour’s Mr Miliband questioned whether the prime minister was the right person to make the decisions over future energy security.

He said: “[The PM’s] weak and confused policy will not take a penny off bills – as his own party chair has admitted – will do nothing for our energy security and drive a coach and horses through our climate commitments, while continuing to leave us at the mercy of fossil fuel dictators like Putin.”

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said it was right to be “conscious of energy security” and keeping the large oil and gas workforce in Scotland employed, calling it a “silly position” to end all drilling.

But speaking to Sky News, he did not give his full support to the new licences, saying Tory plans to “take every single drop” from the North Sea was “a little bit morally bankrupt”.

A new green dividing line in politics?

The move comes as both main parties continue to argue over their commitment to key net zero policies and environmental promises.

The Conservatives’ narrow victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election opened a can of worms within Labour over London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to outer boroughs – something Sir Keir Starmer blamed for the loss.

The Labour leader and Mr Khan are continuing to hold discussions over the extension, with Sir Keir calling on his colleague to “reflect” on the impact on voters.

But Mr Khan has stood by the decision on the basis it will improve air quality for five million people in London.

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Sadiq Khan: ULEZ decision ‘good news for London’

Read more:
Is carbon capture a fossil fuel industry fig leaf or vital for net zero?

What are the Tories’ green policies – and what could be scrapped?

Meanwhile, MPs on the right of the Conservative Party are appealing to the PM to rethink the government’s net zero commitments in light of the win, with calls for delays to a number of targets – including putting back the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith – who was among 43 signatories to a letter urging Mr Sunak to look again at the plan – told Sky News the date was “plucked out of nowhere”, adding: “If you want to get them to clean emissions, you’ve got to do it in a way that still keeps our industry going in the UK.”

The prime minister insisted on Sunday the 2030 deadline would remain, but did announce plans for a review of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), saying he was on the side of drivers.

Downing Street has confirmed ministers are scrutinising existing pledges “in light of some of the cost of living challenges”.

Asked if his oil and gas policy was just a reaction to the Uxbridge by-election, Mr Sunak said he was “committed to net zero”, but added he was “also committed to our energy security and we will get to net zero in a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden families with costs or hassle that they don’t need in their lives right now”.

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