New North Sea oil and gas licences ‘absolutely the right thing to do’, PM insists

Rishi Sunak has today announced over 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences, saying that we will still require fossil fuels for decades to come.

In a move likely to anger environmental campaigners, the prime minister has announced the 100 new licences as part of a visit to north-east Scotland focused on North Sea energy. 

It comes amid a row over the speed of transition to net zero by 2050 and the move looks set to draw a dividing line between the government and Labour’s plan on energy security.

Downing Street says the new licences will protect more than 200,000 jobs.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party has vowed to ban drilling for new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, although existing wells would remain operational for decades to come, while making heavy investments in green technologies to create jobs.

The prime minister is also set to announce today that two new carbon capture projects will be funded in North East Scotland and the Humber. 

Downing Street says this could support up to 50,000 jobs.

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland this morning, the PM was challenged over whether he is making the announcement of new oil and gas in Aberdeenshire because he is targeting the area for the next general election.

Mr Sunak responded: “What this is about is strengthening our energy security for the whole of the United Kingdom.”

He cited Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and said we “don’t want to be in hock to dictators like that” for energy.

Today’s announcement is about ensuring energy security, he said, touting the announcement of two new carbon capture clusters to aid the transition to net zero.

He did not give a timescale for when funding would be allocated, only saying the projects would come “over the next several years”.

Challenged on the fact that he is announcing a net zero project but is also issuing new North Sea oil and gas licences, the PM said it’s “absolutely the right thing to do”.

He added that when the UK reach net zero in 2050, “a quarter of our energy needs will still come from oil and gas”, and that drilling for fossil fuels will actually reduce emissions because the country is not importing them.

Again citing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr Sunak said we are “still heavily impacted” by the war and for that reason, he said, “it’s important that we increase homegrown sources of energy to improve our resilience”, which is good for both jobs and tax revenue to fund public services.

Closing the short five-minute interview, Mr Sunak said his plans will meet the UK’s energy needs in a “proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t add burden or cost to families’ bills”.

Responding to the announcement, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn MP, told Sky News that simply shutting off the taps to new oil and gas would be a “silly position to adopt”

Somewhat backing the principle behind the plans, he nonetheless added that we need to be conscious of climate change, and therefore “robust climate compatibility checkpoints” are needed.

He said: ”If it can be determined that these oil fields are a necessity in order to meet energy security demands in order to ensure that we can still meet our climate objectives, then of course I think you would seek to advance with some of them”.

Asked about Labour’s position that it would issue no new oil and gas licences if it enters government, Mr Flynn said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Keir Starmer changes his position again in advance of the general election.”

He described Labour’s position as “very confusing” and the Conservatives’ position as “simply commercially not viable” and “morally bankrupt”.

He accused the government of missing out on the “renewables gold rush”.

Commenting on the government’s position on carbon capture and storage this morning, Greg Clark, chair of the science, innovation and technology committee, said “that is one of the main ways in which we can decarbonise the economy”.

He also told Times Radio new North Sea oil and gas licences are “consistent” with net zero targets.

He added: “We’re going to be using oil and gas for years to come so the question is … whether you make use of what we have on our doorstep.”

Also defending the PM’s plans this morning, energy security and net zero minister Andrew Bowie told the BBC: “The international committee on climate change has said that we’re going to be relying, at least in part, on fossil fuels for our energy base load for many decades to come.

“So we believe it’s important that those fossil fuels that oil and gas is taken from the North Sea, using British workers and making sure the British Exchequer actually gets the revenue from that extraction rather than being reliant”.

“All of this is part of our drive to create more energy security and to ensure that we are energy independent, but also to make our net zero ambitions a reality”.