The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill does nothing to fulfill our climate and nature targets
Olivia Blake is the Labour Party MP for Sheffield Hallam
Monday brought the second reading of the Government’s wrongheaded Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill – legislation that would shamefully grant further licenses to extract oil and gas from the North Sea.
The Tory backbencher and former COP26 President, Alok Sharma, is right to say that the legislation “is a total distraction” which reinforces the “unfortunate perception” – or, indeed, the reality – that the UK is rolling back from climate action.
The former Prime Minister and now Secretary of State at the FCDO, David Cameron, infamously “ditched the green crap”. It now seems that climate-conscious members of the Conservative benches are ditching the Government because their policies are – not good.
While the tabling of this Bill might suggest otherwise, just last month at COP28 the UK signed the UAE consensus. Ministers would be hard-pressed to explain how encouraging more frequent licensing rounds for new oil and gas, and increased fossil fuel production in the North Sea, supports the fulfilment of this agreement.
According to the United Nations Secretary General, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and hundreds of scientists, new oil and gas licenses put the goal of limiting global average temperatures to 1.5C at serious risk.
We can already see the impacts of a warming world. Just last year the UK experienced not only its second hottest year on record but also the period between July and December was the wettest in 130 years. Many communities across the country were submerged, and flooding caused widespread damage, with farmers facing huge losses to rotting crops in waterlogged fields. The crisis is here; it can’t be ignored.
The root cause is the burning of fossil fuels. But since Parliament declared a climate emergency on 1st May 2019, 17 new oil and gas fields have been granted permission to drill – Laverda, Barnacle, Cadet, Sillimanite, Blythe, Elgood, Southwark, Evelyn, Abigail, Jackdaw, Tommeliten, Talbot, Teal West, Murlach, Alwyn East, Rosebank and Victory.
The burning of Rosebank’s oil alone would produce over 200 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to running 56 coal-fired power plants for a year. That’s more than the combined annual CO2 emissions of all 28 low-income countries in the world.
Not only does the Government’s direction of travel in this Bill contradict the UK’s international agreements under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change but it is also diametrically opposed to the promises we made to protect 30% of UK water for nature by 2030 at COP15 under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
More than a quarter of the oil and gas sites licensed in October last year overlap with Marine Protected Areas. Modeling shows that a major oil spill from Rosebank could impact nearly 20 MPAs, due to a pipeline running through the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt Marine Protected Area.
No wonder the Climate Change Committee warned in its Progress to Parliament last year that the UK is “no longer a climate leader”. Support for increased oil and gas production has been a contributing factor to that – alongside inadequate planning for nature restoration.
The Bill does nothing to fulfill our climate and nature targets. But it also won’t boost our energy security or help struggling families. In fact, the Secretary of State, Claire Coutinho, has admitted these new licenses will not bring down Bills because prices are fixed on international markets.
People across Britain, including in my constituency, often live in damp, cold homes. They’re priced out of an energy system that is broken and not designed for the 21st Century. They need support. Rather than surging prices and the chaos of international fossil fuel markets, they deserve the real security of clean, renewable energy, and steady, affordable bills dictated by the domestic supply of wind, tide, and sunlight.
Just as the Secretary of State has come clean about Bills, so, too, should she be honest about jobs. Despite what the government is telling the country, we should be clear that neither this Bill – nor the endless pursuit of oil and gas – will protect British jobs.
Hundreds of new oil and gas licenses have been issued over the past decade, yet over 200,000 jobs have been lost in the industry. Today 30,000 hardworking people are employed in the sector. Instead of playing politics with their futures, they should be given real security with a clear, detailed plan to support them through the energy transition.
The expansion of oil and gas licenses violates our ever more pressing international climate and nature obligations; ignores the energy security of millions; and fails to offer any serious plan to the tens of thousands of people working in the oil and gas sector. Rather than drilling for more fuel to pour on the climate emergency, it’s time for the real security of a sprint to renewables, a just transition to clean green energy, and an end to fossil fuels.