Several major UK fossil fuel projects have been approved since Cop26 concluded, an analysis has found, while about 50 schemes are thought to be in the pipeline between now and 2025.
Three separate schemes have received some form of approval from government bodies during the six-month period since Boris Johnson’s administration hosted the UN climate at summit in Glasgow. Campaigners say his government is reaching a crunch point, with three major onshore schemes currently being appealed and the levelling up minister, Michael Gove, set to rule on a number of such applications over the next six weeks.
In January, ministers gave the green light to the Abigail oil and gas field off the east coast of Scotland, while a coal license extension was granted in south Wales later that month. Plans to continue and expand oil production at West Newton, east Yorkshire, were then approved by local government in March.
It is thought a large number of new North Sea oil and gas developments that hold a license but have not yet received final consents could soon go ahead without undergoing the “climate compatibility” checks announced by the UK government last year, when other countries had ruled out issuing new oil and gas licenses altogether. Analysis carried out by the climate campaigners Uplift suggests up to 46 such projects could be approved between 2022 and 2025.
A new licensing round has been announced this autumn for offshore oil and gas, while ministers have spoken of “fast-tracking” fields amid escalating pressure within the cabinet and from backbench Conservative MPs over the government’s net zero plans.
“In just six months the UK has gone from touting itself as a climate leader to championing fossil fuels, the very thing that is driving the climate emergency,” said Tessa Khan, director of Uplift.
“It beggars belief. Expanding North Sea oil and gas means the UK – which still holds the Cop presidency – is now a dangerous climate wrecker.”
Several major new fossil fuel infrastructure projects – two of them in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland – are also under consideration. Proposals for a gas storage facility under Larne Lough that could hold more than 25% of the UK’s gas supply and a new oil distribution terminal at Cloghan Point, near the village of Whitehead are facing grassroots opposition and a court challenge. Meanwhile, the Swiss energy company Trafigura is reportedly considering plans to reopen a gas terminal site in Middlesbrough.
Meanwhile, a number of outstanding decisions on major new projects onshore and offshore are expected over the coming months. The west Cumbria coalmine and Jackdaw gas field applications are widely viewed as crucial tests signaling Whitehall’s direction of travel on new fossil fuel developments in view of its Cop26 pledges, with campaigners warning that a rush of new applications and licenses could be triggered if approval either goes ahead.
The head of the International Energy Agency said last year that no new fossil fuel developments should go ahead if net zero global targets are to be reached by 2050. A new scientific study this week also found that nearly half of existing fossil fuel sites would need to be shut down early if global heating is to stay within the 1.5C global heating limit set by governments internationally.
Competing pressures within Boris Johnson’s government that have intensified since the February invasion of Ukraine, placing ministers directly at odds with each other on energy policy.
Citing the findings of the latest IPCC report, the cabinet minister and current Cop president, Alok Sharma, warned on Sunday that reneging on the agreements reached at Cop26 would be a “monstrous act of self-harm”.
The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, however, tweeted two days beforehand to vent his frustrations at young climate campaigners who had gatecrashed a Conservative party branch meeting he had attended in Folkestone. He wrote: “Shout and scream all you like, but I’m not going to put Britain’s energy security at risk by shutting off domestic oil and gas production.
“We will need oil and gas for decades to come. Either we source more of what we need from the North Sea, or import more from abroad.”
Lauren McDonald, 21, one of the campaigners who confronted Kwarteng last week, said: “Kwasi Kwarteng is arguably the most powerful figure within the government when it comes to pushing forward on the UK’s climate goals.
“He has the power to stop new fossil fuels, to act with the science and to put his foot down — many of these decisions ultimately lie with him.”
A government spokesperson said: “As Putin continues to use gas as a geopolitical weapon, we make no apology whatsoever for sourcing more of the oil and gas Britain needs from within our own territorial waters.
“We have clearly outlined our transition from hydrocarbons to clean energy and the British energy security strategy sets out how we will accelerate this through cheap renewables, betting big on new nuclear and maximizing domestic production of gas in the North Sea.”