Companies and individuals involved in North Sea oil and gas donated a total of £419,900 to the Conservatives ahead of and during the government’s recent review into the future of the sector, a DeSmog analysis shows.
Most of the donations, dating from July 2020 onwards, were made this year in the run-up to the publication of the government’s North Sea Transition Deal, launched at the end of March. The policy has been billed as a “transformative” partnership designed to put the industry on a net zero pathway, including a 50 percent cut in operational emissions by 2030, but has been criticised by campaigners for leaving the door open to further fossil fuel exploration.
Mikaela Loach, a fourth-year medical student and climate campaigner, who is bringing a legal challenge over the government’s financial support for North Sea oil and gas and its policy of “maximising economic recovery” of reserves, called the findings “deeply troubling”.
“These revelations underline why we are taking the UK government to court: the oil and gas regime in the UK benefits companies and not the UK public.”
“If oil and gas industry execs have hundreds of thousands of pounds to donate to the Conservative party, why are we giving them hundreds of millions in public money each year?”
This analysis was covered in The Guardian
Two donors are members of the Prime Minister’s exclusive Leader’s Group, made up of the party’s biggest financial backers.
Amjad Bseisu, CEO of EnQuest, which reportedly produces around seven percent of the UK’s oil and has stakes in 40 North Sea oil and gas licences, gave one £12,500 donation in December, four days after the government set out its strategy for the energy sector in light of the UK’s net zero goal. He gave another gift nine days before the North Sea Transition Deal was announced in March. He has previously talked up the potential for new discoveries to be made in the region, allowing the industry to extend its lifespan.
Bseisu has given £417,000 to the Tories since 2013, according to Electoral Commission data, including a donation to Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi’s local party ahead of the 2017 General Election. Zahawi has a long history working in the oil and gas industry.
In 1998, Bseisu launched the operations and investment arm of Petrofac, a UK-based multinational oil and gas services firm that has been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office since 2017. The Guardian revealed that the company, run until last year by another major Tory donor Ayman Asfari, had been accused of paying million-pound bribes to secure contracts in nine different countries.
Both Bseisu and Asfari served as “business ambassadors” for the energy sector under David Cameron’s government and Bseisu has chaired the “independent energy community” for the World Economic Forum since 2016, according to his EnQuest biography.
Bseisu left Petrofac in 2010 to set up EnQuest and there is no suggestion he had any involvement in the alleged bribes. He did not respond to DeSmog’s invitation to comment on this story.
Alasdair Locke, also a Leader’s Group member, chairs a firm that decommissions oil and gas wells, in addition to his role as chairman of the UK’s largest independent petrol station operator. He gave £175,000 during the eight month timeframe DeSmog examined.
Locke, Non-Executive Chairman of Well Safe Solutions, gave £155,000 to the Conservative Party between January and March. He also chairs Motor Fuel Group, which owns over 900 petrol stations across the UK, and is the founder and former Executive Chairman of Abbot Group, a major oil and gas services company in the North Sea.
In 2018, Locke told The Herald he was optimistic about the prospects of future oil and gas production in the region, saying there was “still lots of economically recoverable oil out there” and it would be a “big industry for the next 20 or 30 years”.
Locke also gave £20,000 in July to Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Ross has been a vocal supporter of North Sea oil and gas, arguing last year that jobs in the sector should be prioritised over climate targets and recently warning that the Scottish Green Party would demand an end to the industry if they form a coalition with the SNP.
When contacted by DeSmog, a spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives said the party will “always stand up for the North Sea oil and gas industry and the 100,000 Scottish jobs it supports.” They added that “the UK Government’s Transition Deal will help to protect those jobs as the industry moves to cleaner, greener forms of energy.”
Locke told DeSmog that Well Safe Solutions aimed to provide the “highest technical and environmental standards in the decommissioning of the existing North Sea infrastructure” and had “no involvement in the oil and gas licensing regime in the North Sea or in any oil and gas exploration or production”. He also pointed to Motor Fuel Group’s investments in electric vehicle charging stations and said the company was already the biggest provider of ultra-fast charging points across the country.
He denied the company sought to influence government policy “in any way beyond supporting industry and government in adopting the highest standards”, and said the donations were made in a personal capacity, principally as a means of supporting Scottish unionism. He said he had not met with any ministers or officials in the past nine months.
Another donor, Richard Upshall, who runs an oil services firm active in the North Sea called OES Asset Integrity Management, gave the central Conservative Party £19,900 in February. He has previously called for further investment in North Sea oil and gas, considering it an “industry coming back to life”.
The Times recently revealed that Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley Ben Houchen worked as a consultant to a number of Upshall’s businesses before entering politics, one of which was involved in large-scale VAT fraud. Upshall gave £15,000 to Houchen’s re-election campaign through the same company, Askaris, in 2019.
Upshall denied that he hoped to influence government policy through his donations and said he had not met with any ministers or officials in recent months when asked by DeSmog.
The largest North Sea-related donations were made by Balmoral Group, an engineering firm heavily involved in the North Sea industry. The company gave two £100,000 donations, one in July 2020 and another in March 2021.
Balmoral also gave £5,000 to the Liberal Democrats’ local Aberdeenshire East party, whose candidate Conrad Wood works as an engineer for oil and gas firm RockRose Energy. Balmoral has donated £258,000 to the Tories, £67,000 to Labour and £40,000 to the Lib Dems since 2007, either directly or through subsidiaries.
The latest donations disclosures show the Conservatives also received gifts from a number of other fossil fuel-linked donors, not involved in the North Sea.
Centrax, a gas turbine producer, gave £5,000 each month to the party between November and March, while Peter Lumley, an oil and gas consultant, gave £5,000 to Michael Gove’s local party of Surrey Heath.
Matthew Ferrey, a former senior partner at oil trading firm Vitol, donated £25,000 to the party. He also gave £15,000 to former Brexit Minister and trustee of the UK’s principal climate science denial group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Steve Baker, reportedly used to cover the costs of a media consultant for the Covid Recovery Group of MPs critical of lockdown measures. Ferrey has donated £615,000 to the Tories since 2008, records show.
Balmoral, Centrax, Lumley, and Ferrey did not respond to DeSmog’s request to comment on this story.
A review of the UK’s oil and gas licensing was launched at the start of September 2020. In March it was announced new licenses will be granted, despite campaigners’ calls for them to be banned, but will be subject to a “climate compatibility checkpoint”, with licences not in line with the government’s climate targets theoretically ruled out.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met 16 times with North Sea companies and industry bodies between June and December 2020 to discuss the sector deal and its review of oil and gas licensing, public records show.
No meetings with any environmental groups to discuss North Sea policies during that period are recorded, though the department did hold two roundtable discussions with green organisations about the licensing review.
In December 2020, Kwarteng hosted a “North Sea Transition Forum” to discuss oil and gas, with attendees including the Association of British Independent Oil Exploration Companies (BRINDEX), of which EnQuest is a member. Chrysaor, the UK’s largest independent oil producer before it merged with Premier Oil to form Harbour Energy in March, shares several licences with EnQuest and also attended the meeting, along with majors Equinor, Shell and Total.
When confronted with the data, a BEIS spokesperson said that “the UK is working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels and eliminate our contribution to climate change, but we also know there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas, as recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee.”
The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional research by Michaela Herrmann.