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Offshore Petroleum Bill passes Commons hearing as North Sea spill identified

Downing Street’s proposed policy, aimed at facilitating more fossil fuel extraction to ease the clean energy transition cost, passed its first parliamentary hearing on Monday 22nd January with a majority of 82. Meanwhile, campaigners have identified the first oil slick in UK waters of 2024, spanning 3,500 football pitches.

white and black boat on body of water during daytime

The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is supposed to make room for a new licensing regime for fossil fuel exploration and mining in the North Sea, which, the Government claims, would place Britain in a far stronger position during the decades leading to the country reaching net zero emissions. This includes increasing supplies of locally produced fuels, which – theoretically – could yield a reduction in energy costs. 

However, critics have pointed to the international nature of oil and gas markets, with production added to a global supply chain with centralised pricing, meaning there is little chance the UK would reap the rewards Downing Street has broadcast. Meanwhile, the actual amount of gas likely to be made accessible through the Bill has been described as ‘trivial’, meaning domestic supplies would still be heavily reliant on imported fuel. 

Analysts have also pointed to potential ‘hidden goals’ of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposals, raising legitimate concerns the Bill is really about winning support in the next General Election from those already worried about the mounting cost of a green, net zero energy transition. Others have gone further still, and accused the Conservative Party leader of attempting to stoke the fires of a culture war between environmental advocates and a demographic Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho has described, in loaded language, as ‘ordinary workers’. 

‘As people endure another winter of soaring energy prices, with last week’s plummeting temperatures especially hard for the millions struggling to afford to heat their homes, the Prime Minister’s relentless posturing and efforts to woo the oil and gas industry will do nothing to improve our energy security or lower bills, said Jamie Peters, Climate Co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth. ‘It’s yet more clickbait politics which offers very little substance. This bill simply serves as a message that the government is siding with wealthy oil and gas companies, rather than showing the strong leadership needed to guide us out of the interlinked cost of living and climate crises.

‘Far from being at the forefront of the global race to a zero-carbon future, the UK risks being left behind as other nations embrace emerging clean industries,’ he continued. ‘Decisionmakers acting in our true economic interests would be investing in the sustainable sectors, and jobs, that will last the long-term – it’s no secret the oil and gas industry is on borrowed time. By unleashing the UK’s huge potential for homegrown renewable energy, and through a national drive to insulate our heat-leaking homes, the government can slash bills, lower emissions, improve energy security and boost the economy.’

If the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is enacted, those behind it have claimed it could protect 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly linked to the fossil fuel industry. Many of these will also be essential in the low-carbon energy economy we now need to create. Nevertheless, several experts from the oil and gas sectors, including former-BP CEO Lord Browne, have hit back, arguing that tweaks to licensing laws will do nothing to safeguard these livelihoods, but a more meaningful and committed shift to net zero strategies would. 

Worryingly, the debate wages at the same time as representatives from the campaign group Ocean UK, part of the Ocean Alliance Against Offshore Drilling, believe they have identified the first North Sea oil spill of 2024. Recorded by SkyTruth, the incident is spread across 22 square kilometres of marine environment, equivalent to 3,500 football fields, and poses a severe risk to species and ecosystems in the vicinity, adding to the 13,000 tonnes of oil which have been spilled into the North Sea between 2018 and 2023. 

‘The Oil and Gas Bill is simply political posturing; it is a hook on which to hang the government’s spurious claims that decimating our ocean and lining the pockets of oil giants by digging up every last drop of fossil fuels is somehow a greener route to take,’said Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director at Oceana UK. ‘Are we really going to stand aside while our seas fall victim to Big Oil?

‘We can’t be distracted by this, we must focus on ending all new oil and gas developments in the North Sea and making a fair transition to renewable energy,’ he continued. ‘It is the ocean that suffers the most when it comes to these destructive projects, yet protecting the UK’s beautiful and unique marine life can help mitigate the climate crisis as well as providing stable jobs for the future. It’s time to end this madness.’

More on North Sea oil and gas:

King’s speech broadcasts UK Government’s net zero negligence

Emissions monitoring tech needed for ‘North Sea roadmap’

Rosebank oil field green light red flags UK climate commitments

Image: Maël BALLAND

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