The UK government said Monday it would issue “hundreds” of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea to secure energy reserves while still aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The announcement has angered environmental groups and comes amid an internal debate within the ruling Conservative party on green policies.
The main opposition Labour party has said it will not issue any new North Sea drilling licences if it regains power in a general election due next year.
“Investment in the North Sea will continue to unlock new projects, protect jobs, reduce emissions and boost UK energy independence,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office said in a statement.
It said “a more flexible application process” would be adopted for licence requests, which would still be subject to a “climate compatability” test for carbon reduction goals.
“The government is taking steps to slow the rapid decline in domestic production of oil and gas, which will secure our domestic energy supply and reduce reliance on hostile states,” it said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year saw a global surge in energy prices as Western nations imposed sanctions against Moscow, targeting in particular its massive oil and gas exports.
“We have all witnessed how Putin has manipulated and weaponised energy — disrupting supply and stalling growth in countries around the world,” Sunak said in the statement.
“Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalise on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy.”
Sunak added that even when Britain reaches its net zero target by 2050, a quarter of its energy needs will come from oil and gas.
A study released Monday by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) said the carbon footprint from domestic UK gas production was one-fourth the footprint from imported liquified natural gas.
Environmental group Greenpeace called the announcement a “cynical political ploy to sow division” in which “climate is collateral damage”.
“Just as wildfires and floods wreck homes and lives around the world, Rishi Sunak’s government has decided to row back on key climate policies, attempted to toxify net zero, and recycled old myths about North Sea drilling,” Philip Evans of Greenpeace UK said.
Hugo Tagholm, director of Oceana UK, an ocean advocacy organisation, called the decision a “betrayal of the British people by a government entirely fixated on short-term profits, with no regard for a future for our children and generations to come”.
Also on Monday, the government confirmed plans to build two more carbon-capture facilities along the North Sea coast, at Acorn in northeast Scotland and Viking near Humber, England, alongside two already under construction.
It said the four clusters could support up to 50,000 jobs by 2030.
But the technology has been criticised by some climate experts, who say it risks distracting from efforts to phase out hydrocarbons.
Energy giant Shell, which is involved in one of the carbon capture projects, hailed it as a “central part of plans ot decarbonise North Sea operations”.
Sunak is due to visit later Monday an energy infrastructure site in Aberdeenshire to “highlight the central role the region will play in strengthening the UK’s energy independence and meet the next generation of skilled apprentices key to driving this work forward”.
Environmental policies have been a hot topic in the UK, especially since Labour’s surprise defeat by the ruling Conservative party in a west London by-election.
Their defeat, by less than 500 votes, has been blamed on voter unease at Labour mayor Sadiq Khan expanding a scheme taxing the use of the most polluting vehicles, and appears to have emboldened Tory net zero opponents.
In a Telegraph interview on Sunday, Sunak insisted he was on the side of motorists and said he had ordered a review of so-called low traffic neighbourhoods, contentious local authority-led measures to limit vehicle use in designated areas by blocking roads.
His government has riled climate campaigners since the surprise by-election win by suggesting some UK environmental targets could be eased, while offering lukewarm support for the country’s ambitious net zero agenda.