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Why New Oil and Gas Won’t Provide Energy Security for Britain

Undersea pipes in the North Sea. Generative AI
Author: Samuel Beckingham
Updated: Aug 09, 2023
4 minutes read

Despite Europe being on fire, Rishi Sunak called for more oil and gas to be drilled from the North Sea. At the time, the UN chief António Guterres declared that global boiling was now in effect. The Prime Minister has tried to argue that this will be a way of securing energy for the UK in the future, but how much of this statement is actually true?

The Professor of Geophysics at Royal Holloway University of London, David Waltham, has expressed that the climate cannot sustain any more new oil and gas fields. He has spent the best part of the last four decades training geologists to work within the fossil fuel industry. Waltham argues that humanity cannot even safely set fire to all of the fuel that has currently been extracted, so what sense is there in looking for more?

Sharing this view are the International Energy Agency (IEA), the UN and the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The government’s own advisers on climate change policy are against new oil and gas fields and instead believe the UK should be winding down its fossil fuel dependency in order to transition towards net zero.

Rishi Sunak labours his point about having oil and gas from the North Sea as being much greener than having it imported from other countries. His promise of £20 billion of funding for carbon capture projects (an unproven technology at scale) is a dangerous gamble that will justify the prolonged use of fossil fuels. Pushing hyperbole about the effectiveness of carbon capture will unnecessarily delay the cuts to greenhouse gases.

But what about the oil and gas from the North Sea? Will this make UK energy bills cheaper and less susceptible to price shocks? In short, no. All fuel extracted from the North Sea is sold on the international market, so Rishi Sunak’s claim about securing energy for Britain is false in this regard. The Prime Minister has also hinted that the country has no obligation to stop using oil and gas until 2050 – a widely held Conservative view that is incongruous to making sure net zero infrastructure is in place before this deadline.

According to Adi Imsirovic, a fellow in energy economics at the University of Surrey, making the transition to cleaner fuels is the only way to increase a country’s energy security. The oil and gas industry has been a point of contention for wars and geopolitical tensions through the years. Renewable technology is so much cheaper to install, but the privatised National Grid is unable to keep up with the demand.

Over the course of 50 years, 70% of what is left in the North Sea is oil, but not the kind that the UK uses. As such, 80% of this oil is exported to other countries. According to the CCC, extracting the rest of the gas from the North Sea will only meet 1% of European gas demand each year until 2050. Not only this, but putting up new sites in the North Sea takes plenty of time and decades will pass before any of this fuel can be used. It will most likely be 2050 before any of this energy is usable by UK homes.

There are already several licences in the North Sea that are part way along their live process. However, data from Uplift of Rystad shows that 73% of these are for oil extraction, which is mostly for exporting to other countries. Even when Kwasi Kwarteng was looking at fast-tracking new licences in the North Sea, only three of the sites named at the time would primarily produce gas, which would satisfy the needs of 2% of UK total demand.

What goes against Rishi Sunak’s word the most is that once any fuel is extracted in the North Sea, it doesn’t belong to the UK. It is the property of the licence holder, which is multinational and usually private. When the next energy crisis rolls around, there is no onus for this to be sold to the UK as the highest bidder always wins. In October 2021, most of the gas extracted from the North Sea was exported because the UK was importing it much cheaper from elsewhere.

In a nutshell, new oil and gas extraction from the North Sea will do nothing to help the UK. Not in terms of energy security and certainly not in terms of reaching net zero targets. With a reduction in fossil fuels needed rapidly every year, the overreliance on using carbon capture technology will do nothing to help speed up the implementation of renewable powers.

Tired of political games about energy security? Why not get solar panels of your own to reduce your reliance on the grid?