North Sea oil and gas licences push further nail into already-rotting coffin

The new North Sea oil and gas plans, which are due to further undermine the UK’s international climate standing, will be paid for with a combination of our children’s futures, the crumbling reputation of our democracy and our own bank accounts.

First announced in July 2023 and heralded by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a way to “boost British energy independence and grow the economy“, the new licences give fossil fuel companies permission to redouble their North Sea ‘exploration’ – or, as it is literally, tearing up the sea bed looking for the crushed remains of our extinct ancestors to fuel our own extinction. As well as lining their pockets, this will go against every shred of common wisdom and every international plea – and, potentially, the law.

Time and again, international advisory agencies and governing bodies have warned against the continued investment in oil drilling, which poses a devastating threat to our earth and our lives. UN secretary general Guterres warned in summer of 2023 that fossil fuels are a “dead end” while the International Panel on Climate Change reports has regularly asserted that divestment is urgently necessary. As oil rigs pillage and plunder our planet, their directors feed on our bank accounts to fill their own pockets, making record-breaking profits and splitting the riches amongst shareholders as energy prices soar.

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, told DeSmog that “new drilling won’t make any difference to our bills, which ministers have admitted; it won’t boost energy security in that the UK has burned most of its gas; and it won’t provide a secure future for the workforce, which has halved in the past decade despite hundreds of licences being issues.” Although drilling in ‘our own’ waters, there will be no benefits to ‘our own’ economy, quite simply because the oil is not “ours”. Once drilled, the oil will be sold by the private companies who drill it on the open market, and the UK will be subject to the same prices as everyone else.

Meanwhile, renewable energy – which gives our planet and our futures a fighting chance – has never been cheaper. For three years running, this has been the world’s least expensive energy source. British economist Lord Nicholas Stern recently wrote in the Financial Times to support Khan’s claim that these new licences are economic nonsense. In the North Sea “operating costs remain relatively high compared with other hydrocarbon basins. North Sea oil and gas is only really profitable if consumers in the UK and the rest of Europe continue to pay high prices for energy. But those prices will come down as the costs of renewables and electricity storage continue to fall.”

He also supported calls for the transition to green energy by pursuing “a programme of investment in the activities and technologies of the 21st century to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, including air and water pollution”.So why, then, at this pivotal moment in our earth’s history, when investment in renewable energy has never made more sense, from every imaginable angle – planetary health, global standing, government spending and our energy bills – is our government handing out new licences like a big kid passing round cigarettes by the bike shed?

Let’s check with one of the kids buying the coveted goods: Lord Spencer. Holding a £4.5 million stake in Deltic Energy, the Tory peer and long-term party donor is set to make an enormous sum out of the North Sea expeditions. At a time when oil companies are making record payouts to shareholders and when shareholders are putting increasing pressure on companies as they stand to fail their long term climate commitments, Spencer stands to make quite a buck.

And he’s not the only one: far from it. Fellow established Tory donor Amjad Bseisu and, indeed, Rishi Sunak’s own father-in-law are set to reap enormous financial gains from the licences: Amjad Bseisu’s company EnQuest has been awarded licences to explore subterranean carbon dioxide capture and storage under the North Sea; while Infosys, the IT company founded by Sunak’s father-in-law, signed off on a billion-dollar contract with BP just two months prior to the licences’ announcement.

The government’s friends are getting rich at our expense and the government would seem to be lying about it. This isn’t new. The Covid enquiry gives us a sneak preview at the extent to which the profiteers in charge are willing to sell off public health and our economy when it suits them or their friends. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money went to private companies, often embarrassingly close to the government, for what sometimes turned out to be faulty PPE. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, puts it quite plainly: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”

So, what are we going to do about it?

The protracted and ongoing Covid enquiry perfectly demonstrates the problem with trusting the system to hold its own creators to account. The kid selling illegal cigarettes can often get away with it if he’s hidden his stash and got a friend among the teachers. We must kick off now. There are rays of hope. The success of the recent case of Greenpeace Norway v the Government of Norway, for example, shows that governments can be held to account over climate commitments; the failure of ClientEarth v Shell shows there is still quite some way to go before the same can be said of businesses.

Whilst we continue to use energy to fuel our day-to-day activities, if we do not push for clean energy, we are complicit in these crimes against humanity. The future is not set in stone; this story is still being written. We need pressure on our government, and we need it now. What role will you play?

Lois Ryan


One Response

  1. A great article. There will always be an excuse to defer to tomorrow but we are already behind the curve with climate change. The government is self-serving and COVID certainly proved the lengths they would go to to line their own pockets. We have to be brave to tackle climate change and we have to make changes now – some of them may not be comfortable. If we believe in a better, cleaner, greener planet – the time for change is now.

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