In defiance to its own netzero targets UK to drill more oil and gas

The UK government is set to order more drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea in defiance of its own net zero targets, while neglecting alternative measures that experts say would provide much quicker relief from high energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions instead of raising them.

The energy security strategy to be unveiled on Thursday will acknowledge the need to move away from fossil fuels, the Guardian understands, but still allow for licences to explore new oil and gas fields to be expedited and more production from existing North Sea fields.

Ministers are expected to say the UK needs more oil and gas in the short term, including new sources of fossil fuel imports, to replace the small proportion of UK oil and gas that comes from Russia, and ease pressure on prices.

The government will present North Sea oil and gas as lower carbon than imported gas, according to a Whitehall source, to meet the UK’s needs while ramping up renewables and nuclear power. Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented a “now or never” warning on Monday, showing that new fossil fuel exploration will put the Paris agreement target of limiting global heating to 1.5C beyond reach.

The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, who will present the energy strategy, is strongly in favour of ramping up renewable energy over oil and gas, but under pressure from Tory rightwingers the government is set to offer a heavy emphasis on gas, with few measures on insulation or switching to heat pumps.

The strategy will also set out:

  • A review of the scientific advice on the safety of fracking. The Guardian understands that Kwarteng thinks fracking in the UK is unrealistic and uneconomic, but under pressure from the right will keep the option open.
  • Doubling the target on the use of hydrogen, from 5GW to 10GW, of which half will come from “blue” hydrogen created from fossil fuels, despite evidence that it emits more carbon than coal. Ministers are expected to present blue hydrogen as a necessary bridge to future “green” hydrogen from renewable energy, but campaigners say it will lock in high emissions.
  • A boost to offshore wind, with the expansion of existing coastal offshore windfarms and potential new floating platforms in deeper waters, but solar energy risks being missed.
  • Investment in new nuclear reactors being made easier.
  • Few new measures on ramping up heat pumps and no comprehensive national programme to insulate housing on the scale experts say is feasible and would make a real difference to the cost of living.

Hopes for a major loosening of planning regulations in England that would allow more onshore wind will be dashed, owing to cabinet opposition. This is despite multiple opinion polls showing a large majority of people in favour of windfarms, including most Conservative voters and people in areas near actual and proposed turbines.

Green campaigners said new North Sea fields licensed today would produce no gas for years or decades but result in continued higher emissions long into the future. Meanwhile, the bigger opportunity – of cutting energy waste – risks being missed.

The government’s independent climate adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, has expressed its strong disapproval of plans for more extraction in the North Sea, but said last month it was powerless to prevent it.

Philip Evans, oil and gas campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Rushing to sign off new fossil fuel licences that’ll take decades to get going would be no help in standing up to Vladimir Putin, and would actively make the climate crisis worse. The quickest and smartest solution to the energy challenge and the cost-of-living crisis is a huge push to tackle energy waste. If your bathtub is leaking, you should fix the leak – not just turn up the taps.”

Fixing the leaks seems to be low down on the government’s priority list, however. Successive attempts to insulate Britain have failed, for various reasons: poor administration, in last year’s disastrous green homes grant; complex rules and low incentives for its predecessor “green deal” scheme that was abandoned in 2015; and overall, a half-hearted, short-term and piecemeal approach from the government. Experts say what is needed is a concerted nationwide push to roll out insulation, double glazing and heat pumps, concentrating first on households in or at risk of energy poverty.

Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of the trade body Energy UK, said: “The benefits of making our homes energy efficient are so overwhelming that nobody seriously disagrees with its importance, but as a country our efforts so far have got nowhere near the scale required. Now is surely the time to press ahead with something that is proven to [reduce bills] by hundreds of pounds a year permanently.”

There is little sense that the government is prepared to put in the large-scale effort required. Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, warned: “There is technical potential to halve gas consumption in UK homes. But to realise that extraordinary potential means unleashing a new wave of public investment to help every household to make their home super energy efficient. This requires a wartime effort to build up an army of installers to insulate our homes and fit heat pumps and to ensure it is affordable for everyone.”

If the UK wants to stop importing gas by next winter, that would be theoretically possible if every home were made energy efficient, according to calculations by Jan Rosenow, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project. He said: “We import about 150 terawatt-hours of gas for home heating every year. None of this would be needed if we insulated our homes and switched to heat pumps.

“We could save more gas than we import for heating with existing technologies. What is needed is the government to step up its policies now to roll out insulation and deploy heat pumps as quickly as possible.”

Behaviour change is also out of favour. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, has urged people to turn down their thermostats by just 1C, from about 22C on average to 21C – which is still at the upper end of comfortable. But the government is reluctant to call on people to do anything that could be regarded as a sacrifice.

Another area of concern is solar power. Offshore wind – Boris Johnson’s favourite form of renewable energy – will get a big boost in the strategy, but solar could lose out despite being the cheapest form of power in the UK and the fastest to get up and running, according to Chris Hewett, chief executive of the industry body Solar Energy UK. He said the UK could reach 54GW capacity for solar power by 2030 – about 17% of the UK’s electricity needs – with the right backing.

Plans for some large solar farms have run into opposition, and solar panels are still expensive for most households, despite the removal of VAT on panels. Hewett said: “To unlock the full potential, we need to see the government setting an ambitious target and speeding up investment in the modernisation of our power networks. Supportive planning guidance and a formal recognition that land within a solar farm is frequently used for agriculture or to enhance biodiversity would also enable solar to play an important role in rural economies.”

The Guardian understands there are no plans for the government to seek “wriggle room” on missing or delaying the UK’s carbon budgets or legally binding net zero target.

Source: The Guardian

Tags: NetZero, North Sea Fields, Oil and Gas, Russian Oil, UK
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