Sepa under fire for ‘unacceptable’ payments to oil lobby

Environmental campaigners have called on the Scottish Government’s green watchdog to cancel its “unacceptable” membership of the trade association that represents the North Sea oil and gas industry. 

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) pays £960 a year to be an associate member of Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) —  formerly known as Oil and Gas UK — which has been criticised for making misleading comments on solutions to the climate crisis. 

Friends of the Earth Scotland described Sepa’s membership as a “big misjudgement” and “completely unacceptable”. It gave OEUK — which represents major global polluters including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil — green credibility “which it did not deserve”, the environmental group claimed. 

Sepa told The Ferret its membership of the body allows it to “engage and communicate” with the oil and gas industry, including decommissioning in the North Sea. It pointed out that it is also a member of other trade groups, including Scottish Renewables and the National Farming Union of Scotland

Sepa —  which receives £37 million a year in funding from the Scottish Government —  is responsible for environmental regulation in Scotland, and controls pollution from more than 5,000 sites across the country. 

Its membership of OEUK has raised eyebrows because oil and gas extraction and burning is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of the climate crisis.

Sepa is joined as an associate member by other bodies, including the Scottish Government’s economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise, and Aberdeen City Council

OEUK describes itself as the leading body for the UK offshore oil and gas industry, with a mandate to inform, engage, and champion the sector.

The trade body was recently accused of “twisting words” on the role that oil and gas will play in solving the climate crisis. Campaigners argued OEUK cited the UK Government’s independent Climate Change Committee “out of context” to justify new drilling in the North Sea.

OEUK changed its name to Offshore Energies UK on 14 February. The group says this rebrand is to reflect its members expansion into low-carbon technologies such as offshore wind turbines.

Being an actual member of the oil and gas trade body is a big misjudgement, which gives OEUK a measure of green credibility which they certainly do not deserve.

Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland

The UK’s national weather service, the Met Office —  which is responsible for gathering climate data and warning about the impacts of a hotter climate —  is also listed as an associate member. 

The Met Office has also defended its links with OEUK, arguing that membership helps it to understand how it can help keep those working on offshore oil rigs safe from weather-related risks. Energy and environment contracts earned the agency £17.2m last year. 

Environmental activists argue that the agency sees financial benefits from working with the oil and gas industry which extend further than keeping offshore employees safe, though. In East Africa, for example, Met Office marketing materials said it saw “discoveries of oil and high potential gas fields” as a growth opportunity for weather forecast services. 

Sepa is recovering from a turbulent period in its history, following a significant cyber attack and the departure of its chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, due to “conduct allegations”.

Earlier in February, The Ferret reported that data on pollution breaches and environmental checks had been permanently lost due to the cyber attack, and that allegations of bullying and harassment had arisen at the watchdog. 

A spokesperson for Sepa confirmed that it was a member of OEUK and paid an annual membership fee of £960 per year. 

They said: “Sepa is a member of several bodies, including Scottish Renewables and the National Farmers Union of Scotland. Our membership of Oil and Energy UK allows us to engage and communicate on matters concerning current and future environmental regulatory requirements.

“In addition, it allows Sepa to influence oil and gas decommissioning priorities and support the energy transition as well as progression towards Net Zero objectives.”

But Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told The Ferret that Sepa’s paid membership was “effectively funding OEUK’s continuing misinformation campaign which pretends we can keep going with oil and gas for decades to come”. 

“Sepa is quite rightly keen to make sure that the decommissioning of oil and gas rigs and other North Sea infrastructure is done right so regular interaction with the the oil and gas industry is important,” Dixon said. 

“Being an actual member of the oil and gas trade body is a big misjudgement, which gives OEUK a measure of green credibility which they certainly do not deserve. Sepa needs to talk to companies and the trade body but it should cancel this membership immediately.”

Tessa Khan, director of the campaign group, Uplift, noted that OEUK is “currently lobbying hard to open new fields and for the government to issue new North Sea licences”. 

Khan said: “ Why does an organisation whose job is to protect the environment have anything to do with them ?

“It speaks to how close the oil and gas industry is to our regulators and government more generally. When people want cleaner, cheaper renewable energy, we need public officials to stand up to these companies, not join their lobby groups.”

A Met Office spokesperson said: “Our associate membership of OEUK – a recognised industry body – enables the Met Office to maintain continued professional links with the industry and better understand how we provide optimum safety of life services. 

“We can also help them achieve greater efficiencies, therefore reducing emissions, by working closely with the industry.”

A spokesperson for OEUK said: “Offshore Energies UK and its members are championing the transition to a sustainable future. 

“That requires collaboration and coordination between a wide range of private and government organisations and regulators. OEUK works to promote greater collaboration between all those working in this area.”

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Photo Credit: iStock/Waradom Changyencham

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