A climate test in the new North Sea oil and gas bill is “misleading” and greatly overplays the UK’s climate leadership, scientists and campaigners have warned.
MPs are today (Monday) set to debate the second reading of the controversial Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which would allow oil and gas companies to bid for North Sea licences every year.
The bill is already facing strong opposition from Labour, the Green Party and SNP, as well as considerable resistance from within the Conservative Party. On Friday, prominent green Tory MP Chris Skidmore resigned over the bill’s guarantee of annual licences, writing that it “achieves nothing apart from to send a global signal that the UK is rowing ever further back from its climate commitments”.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, COP26 President Alok Sharma described the bill as “a total distraction, a smoke and mirrors bill that changes nothing… and doubles down on granting new oil and gas licences, the opposite of what the UK has promised.”
The Conservative government has repeatedly justified the extraction of new North Sea oil and gas by claiming it is cleaner than importing gas from abroad, and last year pushed ahead with plans to approve more than 100 new licences.
A climate compatibility checkpoint to assess potential new licences, drawn up with the government in 2021, is now set to be replaced by further weakened measures, experts say, based on cherry-picked data that greenwashes new fossil fuel development.
A statement by Uplift, a group that campaigns for the UK to transition away from fossil fuels, said the claims that UK oil and gas has a lower carbon footprint than imports was “misleading” and can only be achieved “by comparing UK gas production to the very dirtiest gas imports” and excluding the emissions from burning the gas, which are much larger than those of production.
“The bigger picture shows that the emissions of producing UK gas is twice that of gas imported via pipelines from Norway, which make up more than half of the UK’s gas imports,” the statement read.
Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science at University College London, told DeSmog: “Expanding fossil fuel production cannot in any way be spun as helping the world hit net zero”.
“The COP28 statement says that the world is transitioning away from fossil fuels – but the UK is not.”
Under the proposed legislation, licences for new North Sea oil and gas production can only be approved if they pass set climate tests.
These include a requirement that the CO2 emissions from producing “domestic natural gas” are lower than emissions from the production of “higher-emission” liquefied natural gas (LNG) imported into the UK, which the government claims has four times its carbon footprint.
The criteria focuses on comparing the carbon intensity of domestic gas to LNG, a methane-intensive colourless gas which is liquefied and compressed for transport by ships or tankers, rather than gas imported to the UK by pipeline, like the one connecting the UK to Norway.
But critics claim the comparison is fundamentally flawed, and suggested that a comparison to the gas imported from Norway would give a very different picture.
The source for the government’s “one-quarter” claim is from a July 2023 press release from the North Sea Transition Authority, an independent body owned by the government, which issues development licences.
However, fact checks by the BBC and Channel 4 have found that total emissions from the production of domestic gas is not “one-quarter” of imported gas (75 percent lower), but 17 percent lower. The NSTA’s own figures, included in the press release, show that UK gas production releases more than double the CO2 emissions than “pipeline [gas] imports from Norway”.
“The bill is a political stunt rather than a serious proposal on energy security,” said Merlin Hyman, chief executive at climate nonprofit Regen.
“The test in the Bill that emissions from UK gas production are lower than imported Liquified Natural Gas is a smokescreen that ignores the fact that emissions from UK gas production are actually higher than those from our main import partner Norway.”
Experts also point out that the carbon intensity test of potential licences only addresses the production, rather than use, of the extracted oil and gas. “The major footprint of natural gas is in the use, not the production,” Professor Mark Maslin of UCL told DeSmog, “so this makes little or no sense.”
New oil and gas licences for the North Sea that the UK government approved between 2021-2023 will produce as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of the entire yearly emissions of Denmark, analysis has shown. If granted, the licences under consideration could increase those emissions eightfold, according to data by Greenpeace.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt defended the bill on Saturday, and criticised Chris Skidmore’s decision to step down. Speaking to Radio 4’s Today program, he claimed the independent panel for climate change was “very clear that even when we reach net zero in 2050, we will still get a significant proportion of our energy from fossil fuels, and domestic oil and gas is four times cleaner than imported oil and gas.”
But the Climate Change Committee’s interim chair, Piers Forster, responded on X: “Our earlier advice is still current. UK oil and gas consumption needs to fall by over 80 percent to meet UK targets.” This and the global pledge made at COP28 in Dubai to transition away from fossil fuels meant further licensing was “inconsistent with climate goals”, he said.
A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said they “completely reject” claims that their data is misleading.
“As a net importer, it makes sense to use home-grown British resources to manage the decline in domestic oil and gas production in a way that reduces our vulnerability to hostile states and the tests in the Bill reflect this.”
There is no guarantee that oil and gas produced domestically wouldn’t be sold on the international market: the government admitted last week that the proposed Rosebank project for a new oilfield in the North Sea would not be required to sell its oil in the UK.
Uplift’s Robbie MacPherson said that ultimately, the legislation would “make no difference to energy security”.
“This bill will further weaken the UK’s green credentials by introducing new ‘tests’ for approving oil and gas licences which will be impossible to fail,” he said.
“This government needs to get over its obsession with oil and gas and start investing in real solutions to the energy crisis, such as insulating homes and scaling up renewables.”
Additional reporting by Michaela Herrmann.