The prospects for an expansion of oil and gas drilling in the North Sea have cleared a major hurdle, as the Committee on Climate Change said “stringent tests” must be applied to any new exploration licences but stopped short of saying they could not be issued.
New drilling would not reduce energy bills for UK consumers, the committee found, and its chair, former Conservative environment secretary Lord Deben, said he would “favour” a moratorium on North Sea exploration.
He said refusing new licences would “send a clear signal to investors and consumers that the UK is committed” to its climate goals, and help to “strengthen climate ambition internationally”.
But the committee, which is the statutory adviser to the government on the net zero goal, concluded that as it could not establish clearly whether new exploration would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions globally, and as considering the UK’s energy security went beyond its remit, any decision on new licences must be taken by ministers.
“Weighing these advantages is an inherently political decision, which goes beyond climate policy and sits rightly with government, not with my committee,” wrote Deben, in a letter to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng published on Thursday.
He also made clear that producing more North Sea oil and gas would do little or nothing to help UK consumers cope with high energy prices. “Any increases in UK extraction of oil and gas would have, at most, a marginal effect on the prices faced by UK consumers in future,” he wrote.
Despite these warnings, the committee’s conclusion is likely to boost controversial government plans to license new oil and gasfields in the North Sea.
Green campaigners said any exploration for new oilfields, to rejuvenate the North Sea’s declining production, would have disastrous impacts on the climate.
Tessa Khan, director of Uplift, which campaigns for an end to fossil fuel extraction, said: “The committee’s opposition to continued North Sea exploration is a clear acknowledgment that there is a limit to what we can safely burn. There’s no justification for these developments, which will see the oil in them exported. They won’t lower bills or contribute to UK energy security. All they’ll do is increase industry profits.”
The UK hosted the Cop26 UN climate summit last November, and will continue to direct international climate efforts this year as president of the UN negotiations. Deben made it clear that allowing new oil and gas extraction would have a “material” impact on the UK’s ability to encourage other countries to improve their climate targets.
“Continuing to allow extraction may weaken UK diplomacy to encourage other countries to adapt ambitious climate policies. It is also important on a domestic state for their to be a perception that government policy is fully aligned with net zero, rather than being undermined by questions such as seen over the last year with the proposed coal…
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