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Governments attacked for boosting pollution from North Sea oil

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The UK will cause 361 million tonnes of carbon pollution by increasing North Sea oil production since the climate emergency was declared in 2019, according to campaign groups.

They say that this is as much pollution as the huge coal-fired power station at Longannet in Fife emitted over 35 years. The station was closed down in 2016.

Campaigners are calling for a “managed phase-out” of oil and gas production over the coming decade, combined with a “just transition” to a low carbon economy.

The Scottish Government stressed it was “wholly committed” to ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045. But it argued this included a “vibrant future” for the North Sea.

MSPs are due to discuss the future of oil and gas and the need to meet climate targets at a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 15 September.

The UK Government insisted that future oil exploitation licenses will only be granted if “they are compatible with the UK’s climate change objective”. The demand for oil and gas would be “ongoing”, it said.

A new report entitled Watershed has been published today by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Oil Change International. Using official data, it calculates that North Sea fields in production and under development contain 6.55 billion barrels of oil and gas.

That compares to 5.7 billion barrels in 2019, meaning that an additional 800 million barrels have come online in the last two years. When burnt, that will release 361 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution, the report says.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared a “climate emergency” in a speech to a Scottish National Party conference in April 2019. She said she was inspired by meeting young climate campaigners, who had gone on strike from school.

The projected total of all UK offshore reserves is 20 billion barrels, which both UK and Scottish governments have indicated they plan to licence for exploitation. “This would nearly triple the emissions from the UK’s developed reserves, pushing the world further into climate breakdown,” says the report.

The report calls on both governments to cease all new oil and gas field developments, to end financial support for the fossil fuel industry and to redirect investment towards renewable energy. Failing to take such measures “seriously weakens” the credibility of the UK as host for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, it warns.

“Oil and gas are the accelerants of the climate fire engulfing the world, yet both the UK and Scottish governments are still committed to extracting every last drop of fossil fuels from the North Sea,” said Caroline Rance from Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Writing the rules for the benefit of fossil fuel companies and encouraging major polluters to keep on drilling for decades to come cannot possibly be reconciled with the action that is needed to cut climate pollution.”

Rance added: “With less than 50 days to the United Nations (UN) climate conference, we call on the Scottish Government to clarify whether they will vigorously oppose all new oil and gas developments, in line with climate science, and support a managed phase out needed to ensure a just transition for Scotland’s oil and gas workers.”

Campaigners are reiterating calls for the cancellation of the proposed new Cambo oil field north west of Shetland. It is estimated to contain another 800 million barrels of oil and gas.

“The current UK policy of maximising oil and gas extraction is a plan to maximise climate chaos and injustice globally,” said Kelly Trout from Oil Change International.

“Ahead of COP26, the Scottish Government’s own climate credibility rests on demanding a sea change in UK policy away from extraction.”

In August the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said that the latest “code red” scientific report by world experts “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet”. He called on countries to “end all new fossil fuel exploration and production”.

The Scottish Greens welcomed the new report. “We cannot continue to expand oil and gas extraction in a climate emergency,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“We already have more oil and gas in current production than we can safely burn to keep to our climate commitments.”

The Scottish Government said that it was “wholly committed to ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045, and to ensuring we do it in a way that is just.”

A Scottish government spokesperson added: “The First Minister has called 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.

“We are clear that the North Sea has a vibrant future in renewable energy, hydrogen, and carbon capture, utilisation and storage. Meeting our climate obligations while ensuring a secure energy supply and supporting our highly skilled workforce to transition to the green jobs of the future must all go hand in hand.”

The draft shared policy programme agreed by Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party promised research “to better understand our energy requirements as part of our just transition to net zero and how this aligns with our climate change targets”. A report is due by the end of 2022.

The UK Government’s department for business, energy and industrial strategy pointed out that it had agreed a “landmark deal” with the oil industry to support the transition to green energy by 2050. 

“But it is the case that there will be ongoing demand for oil and gas while we ramp up renewable energy capacity, as the independent Climate Change Committee itself recognises,” said a spokesperson.

“Any future licenses will only be granted to industry on the basis that they are compatible with the UK’s climate change objective.”

According to the UK Government, the Cambo oil field was originally licensed in 2001. “Consent for development of the field is a matter for the Oil and Gas Authority and the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning,” it said.

“As is normal for such a site, the proposals are subject to extensive scrutiny, including a full environmental impact assessment and a public consultation.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/akiyoko. This story was amended at 12.15 on 15 September to say that increased oil production “will cause” carbon pollution, rather than “has caused”.

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