The UK has opened up a new licensing round to allow oil and gas companies to explore for fossil fuels in the North Sea despite threats of a legal battle from climate campaigners.
The North Sea Transition Authority has begun a process to award more than 100 licences to companies looking to extract oil and gas in the area. Almost 900 locations are being offered up for exploration.
The process, which will run until the end of June, is the first since 2019-2020. The process was near annual before that but the government put it on hold while it designed a “climate compatibility check”. However, the check has been criticised because it is only advisory and does not restrict authorities from granting a licence.
The licensing round also faces criticism as it will not solve Britain’s short-term problems around potential gas shortages or sky-high bills.
Climate campaigners at Greenpeace said the decision to launch the licensing round was “possibly unlawful and we will be carefully examining opportunities to take action”.
Since Liz Truss became prime minister she has reopened the door to fracking in the UK and resisted calls from Labour to extend the windfall tax on oil and gas companies. The chief executive of Shell this week said governments may need to tax energy companies to fund efforts to protect the “poorest” people from soaring bills.
The government argues that the new licences will boost Britain’s energy security and create jobs.
Philip Evans, an energy transition campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Yet again this government’s energy policy benefits fossil fuel companies and no one else. Supporting the oil and gas giants profiteering from the energy and climate crises ignores the speedy solutions that are best for the economy, for lowering bills and for the climate.
“Experts have repeatedly made clear that we need warmer, energy efficient homes, and a big push for cheap, homegrown, renewable power. Yesterday the IMF explained yet again that any delay to decarbonisation makes it much more expensive. New oil and gas licences won’t lower energy bills for struggling families this winter or any winter soon nor provide energy security in the medium term.”
On the announcement, Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tweeted: “Grotesque – now oil and gas licenses won’t cut energy bills as fuel gets sold at global prices; it’ll drive #climateemergency since it adds to total global emissions; takes years to come on line & won’t help energy security. Environmental & economic madness.”
Writing in the Guardian, Lucas argued that the fossil fuel industry was “thriving”.
The average oil and gas discovery takes about five years to come into production, although the NSTA hopes to speed up the award of licences to reduce this to 12 to 18 months in some cases.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, is reportedly seeking to sign deals with Norway and Qatar, to boost gas supplies that would lock Britain into long-term contracts.
National Grid warned on Thursday that Britons could face rolling three-hour blackouts this winter if gas supplies from Europe are cut and there is sustained cold weather.