The UK’s Business Department and the country’s leading oil and gas industry body have both been accused of citing the Climate Change Committee “out of context” in a bid to justify new developments in the North Sea.
Campaigners say the industry is “twisting the words” of the government’s independent climate advisers in a “shameless” attempt to promote its growth plans.
Oil & Gas UK (OGUK) cited the CCC in public statements last week around the release of its annual Economic Report, which announced an estimated £21 billion of investment in new oil and gas projects by the industry over the next five years.
But the CCC has not issued advice on the opening of new offshore oil and gas developments, and has a high bar for whether they could be justified, with the committee’s Chair recently saying he had yet to see strong enough reasons to do so.
OGUK Chief Executive Deirdre Michie said of the Economic Report: “It points out that the UK government’s Climate Change Committee has set out a pathway towards net zero, which includes the use of gas and oil—albeit in steadily declining amounts.
“A failure to invest in new oil and gas fields—to replace those in decline now—would mean the UK could meet only a third of its future needs, leaving the nation more reliant on imports.”
The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has also used the CCC to defend its oil and gas policies, including when criticized over proposed new North Sea drilling and donations from North Sea companies to the Conservatives.
The CCC has not said whether new offshore developments could be compatible with the UK’s net zero goals, however.
‘Strong justification lacking‘
Speaking to a Scottish parliamentary committee at the end of August, the CCC’s Chair Lord Deben said he was not an “absolutist” on whether new oil and gas developments could be compatible with the UK’s climate targets, but that they would need a very strong justification, which he had yet to see.
He said: “the justification for any new oil and gas exploration or production has to be very strong indeed, and I cannot say that I have seen that so far. That said, I have never been an absolutist on the matter. We have to face up to the issue that there might be some occasions when we think that development could help our move towards net zero to such a degree that it would be worth doing.
“However, we always have to remember that, once you do that, you set an example that will be quoted throughout the world as showing that such development is acceptable.”
Deben also warned that stressing the need for continuing fossil fuel use in the coming years was “another technique that some people will use to try to undermine the whole process [of decarbonization], often for their own financial interests.”
Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the CCC, told DeSmog: “The CCC expects continuing demand for fossil fuels over the transition to Net Zero, but that fact alone does not justify investment in new oil and gas fields.
“We have not reviewed the future of oil and gas development beyond onshore fracking, where we have recommended a moratorium. We await details of the UK government’s promised climate compatibility checkpoint on oil and gas licensing.”
Caroline Rance, Friends of the Earth Scotland Climate & Energy Campaigner, said: “The oil and gas industry is completely shameless in its attempts to defend its unjustifiable pursuit of fossil fuels no matter what the climate consequences.
“Twisting the words of the CCC to suit its climate-wrecking activities is in the same vein as its cynical attempt to adopt the language of transition and net-zero while continuing with business-as-usual.”
“The CCC must be willing to set the record straight when polluters and the government attempt to use their statements out of context,” she added.
“It cannot be a just energy transition if these big polluters are encouraged by the government to keep on drilling and burning fossil fuels for decades to come.”
‘Largely irrelevant’ North Sea deal
The government and OGUK have also cited the government’s North Sea Transition Deal—produced by the government in partnership with the oil and gas industry, and published in March—to justify their plans.
In his foreword to the deal, which allows new oil and gas developments, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “The UK’s demand for oil and gas, though much reduced in the future, is expected by the Climate Change Committee to continue for decades to come.”
Scotland Minister David Duguid also cited the deal and the CCC in August ahead of a meeting with Siccar Point Energy about the proposed Cambo development.
But the CCC has criticized the North Sea Transition Deal for setting inadequate emissions targets.
In its June 2021 Progress Report, the CCC said: “The key development in the past year has been the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD), which commits to reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of North Sea oil and gas production and processing by 50 percent by 2030 relative to 2018 levels.
“This target is less ambitious than our Sixth Carbon Budget recommendation of reducing emissions by 68 percent for the same period. We strongly advise that ambition on reducing emissions from North Sea fossil fuel production and processing be strengthened to be consistent with the CCC Pathway and the Sixth Carbon Budget.”
Tessa Khan, Director of Uplift, one of three environmental groups taking the government to court over its expansion of North Sea drilling, said: “The oil and gas industry is frantically trying to find something to hide behind – whether it’s the Climate Change Committee, a largely irrelevant [North Sea Transition] deal it’s done with ministers, distant net zero targets, or fanciful future technologies – just so that it can carry on producing and polluting, with the UK government’s assistance.
“The public, investors and other governments are now refusing to play this game, recognizing we don’t have time. We know that the only hope of maintaining a safe climate is to keep the oil and gas in the ground. That means halting new developments, starting with Shell’s plans for the Cambo oil field, and rapidly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.”
‘Misleading and wrong’
When asked, OGUK Sustainability Director Mike Tholen said: “We agree with the CCC that oil and gas will only provide a small share of the energy the UK will need by 2050, yet today meets nearly three quarters of all the UK’s energy demand. Half of that comes from domestic production and supports jobs and energy communities across the UK.
“Industry will continue to cut its emission at pace, meeting its environmental targets whilst actively investing in the technology to rapidly decarbonize the UK economy. This will deliver the path to net-zero as swiftly as possible whilst providing the energy the UK with clean energy from its own resources.”
A Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) spokesperson said: “Any suggestion that the government is ‘twisting the words’ of the independent Committee on Climate Change is misleading and wrong.
“No one believes there should be a cliff-edge where oil and gas are abandoned overnight and we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels and eliminate our contribution to climate change, but we also acknowledge that there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas.
“Without a domestic source of oil and gas, the UK risks being even more reliant on more carbon intensive imports from other countries.”
They added: “The North Sea Transition Deal makes clear that the government supports the ongoing development of our North Sea assets only if the sector contributes to our objective to achieve net zero, and these developments are kept under strict scrutiny by regulators in accordance with our climate change targets.”
BEIS’s position, which it says is based on CCC advice and its own production forecasts, is that new offshore oil and gas projects could be compatible with the government’s net zero targets, subject to regulatory conditions.
The Oil and Gas Authority, which is part of BEIS and will decide whether to approve the Cambo project, declined to comment.
Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, Head of Analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “The world is moving away from oil and gas and investing heavily in renewables. The fossil fuel industry knows this and to no-one’s surprise is lobbying hard to protect its interests.
“The economics of North Sea exploration make less and less sense as the world goes green – it actually takes more in subsidies from the Treasury than it adds – and oil bosses’ proposals for new UK drilling would simply keep us locked into this volatile market for longer.
“Rather than being held back by an addiction to polluting fuels that drive climate change, the UK has a real opportunity to show international leadership and push forward its transition to clean energy generated on home soil, bringing with it a wealth of benefits including new jobs in growth sectors.”
Updated on 10/09/21 to include BEIS and OGUK comments