UK Government ‘confident’ of go-ahead for Cambo oil field

The UK Government is “confident” that the controversial Cambo oil development could go ahead without breaching climate targets, a senior Westminister official has said.

Lee McDonough, director general for net zero strategy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told a Holyrood committee that estimated climate pollution from the oil field north west of Shetland had already been “accounted for”.

Her comments were branded “a pretty stunning admission” by campaigners, who suggested “the go ahead for Cambo is pretty much a dead cert”. Scottish Labour described the UK Government’s approach as “terrifying”, while the Scottish Greens said it was “unfathomable”.

Cambo was originally licensed for exploration in 2001, but two oil companies, Siccar Point and Shell, are now bidding to start extracting up to 170 million barrels of oil over the next 25 years. The application is being considered by the UK Government’s Oil and Gas Authority (OGA).

The Ferret revealed on 17 September that three OGA senior executives have shares worth over £225,000 in the oil industry. Eight of the 13 members on the OGA’s board of directors and senior management team in Aberdeen used to work for the oil and gas industry.

McDonough was questioned by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s net-zero committee on 16 September, alongside the UK president of the COP26 climate summit, Alok Sharma MP. In response to the Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, she stressed efforts to “drive down demand for fossil fuels”.

She pointed out that “previously licensed fields such as Cambo” were “already accounted for in terms of projected production and estimated emissions”. She said she was “confident that they can be developed” if they get through the OGA’s scrutiny process.

She added: “So we’re confident that they could still go ahead as we seek to achieve our commitments to net zero in 2050.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland condemned her comments. “This is a pretty stunning admission, that the go ahead for Cambo is pretty much a dead cert,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“While the international experts are telling us we need to reduce oil and gas production year on year the UK Government seem happy for Cambo and other untapped fields to add yet more climate pollution to the atmosphere.”

Scottish Labour argued that the UK Government should be demonstrating climate leadership. “It would be wrong if the decision on the Cambo oilfield was a fait accompli,” said the party’s net zero spokesperson, Monica Lennon MSP.

“When multiple scientific reports make it clear that the drilling of new oil fields is incompatible with the objective of averting climate disaster, this business as usual approach is terrifying.”

You either limit expansion of oil and gas to what you can afford to burn under the Paris Agreement, or you don’t – and live with the devastating global consequences.

Mark Ruskell MSP, Scottish Greens’ climate spokesperson

She added: “The UK will be called out on its hypocrisy at COP26, where integrity is vital for the success of the conference.”

The Scottish Greens contended that the legal requirement for “maximum economic recovery” of North Sea oil clashed with the need to cut climate pollution.

“It is unfathomable how the UK Government could see developing Cambo as being in any way compatible with our moral and political obligations under the Paris Agreement,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP. 

“The circle can’t be squared. You either limit expansion of oil and gas to what you can afford to burn under the Paris Agreement, or you don’t – and live with the devastating global consequences.”

The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy pointed out that the Oil and Gas Authority had not yet taken a decision on Cambo. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, was not “personally involved” in the process, it said.

“While we are backing the UK oil and gas industry’s transition to green energy through our landmark North Sea deal, it is the case that there will be ongoing demand for oil and gas while we ramp up renewable energy capacity,” added a UK government spokesperson.

“Over the past three decades, we have cut emissions by 44 per cent — faster than any G7 country — and are set to outperform our 2022 carbon target. We have already published plans to decarbonise electricity generation, transport, industry and North Sea oil and gas, and will shortly set out our strategy to cut emissions in homes and buildings.”

Photo Credit: iStock/Waradom Changyencham. This story was amended on 3 October 2021 to correct the number of barrels of oil that could be extracted from Cambo over the next 25 years.

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