An oil and gas company run by a leading Conservative Party donor has been awarded licences to explore carbon dioxide storage under the North Sea, sparking accusations that the government is putting the interests of “its friends in the oil and gas business” ahead of the public interest.
On Thursday (18 May), EnQuest announced plans to develop a “low-cost carbon megastore” after winning four out of 20 available carbon capture and storage (CCS) licences, the first of their kind in Europe. The firm already holds dozens of licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration.
The CCS licences are for “appraising” potential storage sites, in which the government says it hopes to store up to 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, around 10 percent of total UK annual emissions.
Oil and gas companies are increasingly turning to CCS as a future business model amid global pressure to achieve net zero targets and a surge in corporate fines for emitting greenhouse gases. However, climate campaigners have called CCS an “unproven technology” that is diverting money and attention away from renewable energy solutions.
Campaigners and opposition politicians have also raised concerns that EnQuest Chief Executive Officer Amjad Bseisu has donated nearly £500,000 to the Conservative Party in the last decade and has lobbied to maximise oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.
This comes after DeSmog revealed in March that the Conservatives received £3.5 million from polluters, fossil fuel interests, and climate deniers in 2022.
The Conservative government has announced its intention to speed up North Sea oil and gas extraction, and is set to soon announce the winners of hundreds of new exploration licences. These policies contravene the International Energy Agency’s warning that new fossil fuel development is incompatible with net zero goals.
Philip Evans, Greenpeace UK’s climate campaigner, said it is “totally absurd” that the government is handing out CCS licences at the same time it has opened a new oil and gas licensing round “that will unleash untold carbon emissions”.
The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), a non-departmental public body owned and funded by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, did not respond directly to DeSmog’s questions on whether EnQuest’s licences present a conflict of interest, referring instead to the “freely available” information on the NSTA’s licensing criteria.
According to the NSTA, licensees have to “meet certain financial criteria” and meet the adequate “technical capability”, but there is no published guidance on avoiding conflicts of interest.
“The government keeps saying that it wants to be transparent on deals and yet there are far more questions than answers emerging every day,” Labour’s Shadow Energy Minister, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, told DeSmog.
“It’s clear that there is one rule for the Conservative Party, their friends and donors, and another for everybody else.”
The 20 CCS licences were awarded to 12 companies for offshore sites covering a total of 12,000 square kilometres near Aberdeen, Teesside, Liverpool and Lincolnshire. Neptune Energy, and Spirit Energy, owned by British Gas’s parent company Centrica, also won contracts.
The UK government has said that CCS is critical to the UK achieving net zero – and says it aims to capture and store between 20 and 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030, and over 50 million tonnes a year by 2035. To achieve this, the government has promised to invest £20 billion into the development of CCS technology over the next two decades.
Environmental groups and many climate scientists, however, have raised concerns that CCS offers a “false solution” that is not yet proven at scale and which may not effectively or safely store carbon. Critics also fear that the development of CCS, which prioritises storing the carbon produced by fossil fuels rather than cutting emissions by switching to renewable energy sources, will permit polluters to keep profiting from oil and gas exploration.
This fear is reinforced by the fact that creating CCS facilities is most easily achieved by using existing fossil fuel infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines.
“The government is taking a huge gamble on these unproven technologies with taxpayers’ money,” said Greenpeace’s Philip Evans. “The danger is that carbon capture at this scale is nothing but a distraction, and a way of propping up the very industry that has to end.”
Tessa Khan, executive director of climate campaign group Uplift, explained that the awarding of CCS licences to EnQuest “potentially puts it in line for state handouts, if the technology can be developed to a point where it’s useful.”
She added: “The government needs to urgently rethink its energy policy and put the interests of the public ahead of its friends in the oil and gas business, who currently have more money than they know what to do with.”
In a statement on its website, EnQuest said it would be helping “the UK and Scotland achieve their national net zero targets”.
EnQuest is “committed to leveraging its extensive subsurface and projects capability as well as its extensive drilling and engineering knowledge of the infrastructure it owns and operates in Shetland and the North Sea to deliver this substantial project”, it added.
Big Money Donations
The Conservatives accepted donations of over £400,000 from individuals and companies in the fossil fuel industry in 2020 and 2021 as the government weighed up decisions on North Sea oil and gas licences, DeSmog previously revealed.
This included £25,000 from Bseisu, who donated £12,500 in December 2020, four days after the government set out its strategy for the energy sector in a white paper on “powering our net zero future”.
Bseisu, a former Petrofac executive, gave another £12,500 gift six days before the North Sea Transition Deal was announced in March 2021. He has donated more than £250,000 to the Conservatives since 2017.
The EnQuest CEO has also urged the oil and gas industry not to give up on the search for new reserves. In 2019, Bseisu advocated for the further exploration of fossil fuels in the North Sea, where EnQuest operates, saying that there were “a lot of discoveries waiting to be found” in UK waters.
EnQuest held regular meetings with the government in 2022, including a private meeting with Greg Hands, then Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, “to discuss the British energy security strategy”, and a roundtable with other UK fossil fuel companies “to discuss oil and gas”.
There is no suggestion that Bseisu used his political connections to influence government policy over the awarding of the CCS licences.
As of 2019, Bseisu was also linked to the Leader’s Group, an exclusive club of big money Conservative donors that in return gain access to high level Tory politicians including senior ministers.
EnQuest and Bseisu declined to comment. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero did not respond to requests for comment.