Cabinet ministers reassured “smiling” fossil fuel executives and offered tips on how to communicate their polluting activities to the general public months before the controversial Rosebank oilfield was approved, DeSmog can reveal.
A new cache of documents, obtained via Freedom of Information request and largely unredacted, offer a rare insight into conversations held between senior Treasury officials and Norwegian state-backed oil firm Equinor.
The virtual meetings took place in January and March, weeks before the government’s ‘energy security day’, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a continuation of oil and gas development in the North Sea.
Six months later, after Sunak had confirmed plans to issue hundreds of new oil and gas licenses, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) approved Rosebank, the Equinor-operated project described by environmental law firm ClientEarth as a “carbon bomb”.
The new documents, from a private meeting held between Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Equinor chief executive Anders Opedal on January 26, shows Hunt offering to work with Equinor to publicly promote the oil and gas industry: “[The chancellor] asked him to work with us and BEIS on the messaging around their investment in the North Sea – to build public support for oil and gas.”
“[The chancellor] basically said he was committed to not changing the tax on oil and gas (barring nuclear war) – and he valued the north sea and its role in the transition. That as well as net zero, we needed energy security and he was happy to say publicly that he supported the Rosebank investment.”
The chancellor also appears to suggest that Equinor could improve its image by funding renewable energy projects through profits made with oil and gas. Equinor is one of a number of oil majors to make record profits thanks to all-time high gas prices, in part inflated by the Russian war on Ukraine, and enjoys considerable government support, with an estimated £3 billion tax break to develop Rosebank.
“It was absolutely not appropriate for Jeremy Hunt to suggest Equinor collude with civil servants on messaging to ‘build public support’ for Rosebank,” said Tessa Khan, executive director at campaign group Uplift.
“The fact that he then suggests spinning some tale about Equinor using Rosebank’s profits to fund renewables suggests he knows there is no actual public case for it going ahead.”
‘Sustainable Transition to Net Zero’
The revelations come after DeSmog reported that oil and gas industry figures held more than 200 meetings with key politicians in the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as they campaigned to water down the windfall tax. The energy price levy (EPL) was increased at last year’s autumn budget to tax 35 percent of oil and gas company profits, resulting in disquiet in the sector.
In meeting “objectives” circulated ahead of the 26 January meeting, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was advised to “use this […] to hear directly from Equinor on the importance of Rosebank”.
“You should provide Equinor with reassurance that you value their position in the UK Continental Shelf, and that their investments, such as Rosebank, are important both for security of supply reasons, and for job creation,” they state.
Rosebank is the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field, and could produce around 300 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, accounting for 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The International Energy Agency has said no new fossil fuel projects should be approved for the world to have a chance of sticking to climate targets.
Months before the decision was officially made, meeting notes show Hunt being encouraged to reaffirm Equinor’s contribution to the UK economy.
Under ‘key talking points’ circulated by civil servants, he is instructed to reassure Equinor on the energy price levy and push back against industry’s request for “contractual certainty” on relaxing the windfall tax. He is advised to tell Opedal that “companies such as Equinor play in securing the long-term energy security of the UK and supporting a sustainable transition to net zero.”
Minutes also show Hunt offering to help Equinor and Opedal with their communications, and advising on how to use money made from oil and gas production to fund renewable energy.
“He suggested that Equinor could talk about using oil and gas profits to fund renewables (“can you say that Rosebank will fund two osw [offshore wind] farms”….) I think the main thing will be saying something in the energy security moment,” the minutes say.
Equinor, which describes itself as a “broad energy company”, has highlighted its decision to develop Rosebank as “sound and rational” and to be seen in the context of its renewable investments. But a report from Greenpeace Nordic, released this month, highlights that just 0.13 percent of the energy it produced in 2022 was renewable and only three percent of its investments were in renewable energy.
In a statement, Equinor told DeSmog: “The UK is one of our most important countries, where over several decades we have been providing reliable supplies of oil and gas and contributed to developing renewables.
“Equinor plans to invest over £10bn in the UK by 2030 and to create over 5,000 of high-quality jobs in offshore wind, CO2 capture and storage, hydrogen, battery storage, and oil and gas.”
Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrats spokesperson for energy & climate change and transport, said she found it “unsurprising” that ministers were meeting with Equinor and other oil and gas companies.
“This Conservative government has made a clear political choice to back the fossil fuel industry,” she told DeSmog.
“It demonstrates once more that government ministers are deeply dishonest about their commitment to get to net zero and that they cannot be trusted to work in the long-term interests of people and planet.”
The documents also show ministers reassuring industry figures immediately after Hunt gave his spring budget speech on March 15. The announcement alarmed oil executives after not addressing any changes to the windfall tax, which they considered punitive.
During a brief phone call, James Cartlidge, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told Equinor representatives that the government remained committed to investing in oil and gas infrastructure in the UK.
Cartlidge said he was “strongly supportive of energy security”, adding: “As flagged in budget docs, there will be further opportunities to consider measures for the sector”.
“Equinor reps smiled at this point,” the minutes note.
Equinor executives also “asked for clarity on ‘energy day’, referring to a raft of announcements around energy policy made on March 30 and were told that “Rosebank decision is progressing”.
“Main issue is stability, predictability, foresight for a long period”, they were told.
The notes also suggest a high level of coordination between the industry and Equinor, which “Flagged possibly coordinating with HMT on a Rosebank announcement”. Internal notes suggest this has been picked up by the Treasury: in parentheses, they say: “we will take this forward”.
In June, the government announced a price floor for its energy windfall tax, which would remove the 35 per cent energy profits levy when oil and gas trades below a certain price.
Tessa Khan, of campaign group Uplift, said the documents offer “a glimpse into the goings-on between our government and oil CEOs” that show UK politicians “have ceased to work for us and have instead decided to side with them”.
She said: “It’s clear they knew at the beginning of the year that there is no benefit to the UK from approving Rosebank, yet last month they went ahead and gave it the green light anyway.”
A spokesperson for the North Sea Transition Authority said the body has “a thorough and rigorous consents system and only approves projects which align with our published guidance and take net zero considerations into account”.
A Treasury spokesperson told DeSmog: “Development proposals are a matter for the independent regulators, in this case the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), which granted consent for the Rosebank development this September. As is normal practice, ministers and officials engage on a regular basis with a range of stakeholders to discuss government policy.”
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and Equinor were contacted for comment but had not responded prior to publication.