Twenty-nine new North Sea oil and gas projects, which together could cause nearly one billion tonnes of carbon pollution, are still in the pipeline after the decision to pause the controversial Cambo field, according to new research.
The new developments — all of which are either awaiting an investment decision from developers or approval from regulators — would produce the equivalent of over two billion barrels of oil if they all go ahead.
Among these projects are four oil and gas fields —Equinor’s Rosebank, BP’s Clair South, Enquest’s Bentley, and CNOOC’s Glengorm — which are expected to produce more fossil fuels than the first phase of Cambo.
The oil and gas industry claims that both Scotland and the UK are still reliant on these projects to provide energy and heating. They argue that stopping domestic production of oil and gas would mean reliance on other countries “at greater cost to taxpayers, UK jobs and a far larger carbon footprint”.
But environmentalists said that progressing new oil and gas projects is “denying the reality” that fossil fuels need to be phased out to limit “dangerous climate warming and protect the lives of millions of people”.
10 largest potential UK oil and gas projects
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Three new oil and gas fields are currently awaiting approval from the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED). If all three are given the green light, they could produce a combined equivalent of 82 million barrels of oil and 30 million tonnes of carbon.
One gas field, Harbour Energy’s Tolmount East, has already been approved. It is expected to generate 11 million tonnes of emissions throughout its lifetime, with production due to get underway in 2022.
On top of the four new fields, upgrades to three other projects are also awaiting decisions from OPRED. These are for pipelines to transport oil and gas to shore or to maximise the output from existing fields.
A further 25 projects are in the near term pipeline, meaning that developers are expected to make investment decisions on them in the next few years. If they all go ahead, these could pump 908 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere over their lifetimes.
This would be almost three times the UK’s total annual emissions, which were 326.1mn tonnes in 2020.
The estimates of the carbon footprints of the fields take into account emissions throughout their operational lifetimes. This includes emissions from drilling for the oil and gas, burning it for energy, and decommissioning once reserves have been exhausted.
In addition to the new offshore oil and gas projects, there are also seven onshore developments and three coal developments in the works.
The emissions that could be produced by these are unclear, although the new Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria alone could produce 210 million tonnes of carbon.
Britain is also funding numerous new fossil fuel projects abroad through its aid budget and official export credit agency, UK Export Finance (UKEF).
According to the FOE report, Westminster has spent £568m of aid money and £3.3bn of export credits on fossil fuel projects since 2015. Meanwhile, between 2013 and 2018, 96 per cent of UKEF’s budget for new international energy projects went to fossil fuel companies.
Ryan Morrison, just transition campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said this was a sign that the UK Government was “saying one thing and doing another” by “encouraging companies to keep drilling for oil and gas for years to come”.
Morrison added: “Opening up new oil fields is denying the reality that we need to urgently phase out oil and gas if we are to stay within the agreed 1.5C limit of dangerous climate warming and protect the lives of millions of people.”
“Now that the Cambo development has fallen through, ministers need to start playing a more active role in managing a just transition or it will be a free-for-all,” Sauven said.
“They should start by ruling out any new oil and gas drilling, support companies investing in clean energy and storage, and make resources available to retrain offshore workers.”
Cambo faced a backlash from environmental activists, who argued that it was incompatible with the UK’s efforts to limit global heating to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
They cited a May 2021 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) — the world’s leading energy organisation — which said no new oil, gas or coal projects could go ahead if the 1.5 degree target is to be met.
Siccar Point Energy, which owns a 75 per cent stake in the Cambo field, announced it was pausing work on the project in December 2021. Siccar’s business partner on the development, Dutch oil giant Shell, had earlier pulled out citing a weak economic case for the project.
The UK Government, via its second regulator the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), had been due to make a decision on whether to allow Cambo to proceed. Indications were that Westminster was set to approve the field, which would have produced 160 million barrels of oil in its first phase.
This was despite the country hosting the UN’s flagship climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November 2021.
Both Holyrood and Westminster were criticised at the summit for not joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. This is a collection of countries, led by Denmark and Costa Rica, which are committed to “the managed phase out of oil and gas production”.
Katy Heidenreich, supply chain and operations director at trade association Oil and Gas UK said: “UK oil and gas companies are the same companies that are accelerating greener energies to help ensure Scotland achieves net zero by 2045.
“And we’ll still need oil and gas to provide energy as those technologies are scaled up, to avoid the lights going out, houses being unheated or transport without fuel.
“If the UK stopped domestic production of oil and gas, it would do nothing to address the continuing demand for oil and gas but simply lead to increased imports from countries like Russia, Qatar and other countries at greater cost to taxpayers, UK jobs and to a far larger carbon footprint.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy added: “While we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years.
“What we cannot have is a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight. Turning off the taps would put energy security, British jobs and industries at risk and we would be even more dependent on foreign imports.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said its focus is on achieving the “fastest possible just transition” for the oil and gas sector – one that “delivers jobs and economic benefit” and meets climate obligations.
They added: “We have said previously that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with international climate goals and we continue to call on the UK Government, who have the power to act in this instance, to urgently re-assess all approved oil licenses where drilling has not yet commenced against our climate commitments.
There is a programme of “work and analysis” to better understand energy requirements in the transition to net zero, the spokesperson added. This is to ensure an approach that “supports and protects energy security and the workforce” whilst meeting climate obligations.
The spokesperson continued: “As that programme develops we are in close dialogue with the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance to identify areas where we can share knowledge and what category of membership is most suitable for Scotland.”
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