No evidence to justify Cambo oilfield, says chair of Climate Change Committee

The chair of advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said that he has seen no evidence which would justify the approval of proposed plans for new oil exploration in the North Sea.

An offshore drilling rig in Scotland. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Speaking at the Scottish parliament’s recently established Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, Lord Deben said there must be a “very, very, very strong” justification for approving new oil and gas projects such as the controversial Cambo oilfield. 

While Lord Deben acknowledged that there may be some occasions where a “development could be of a kind which would help our move towards net zero to such a degree that it’s worth doing”, he cautioned that “we always have to remember that the moment you do any of that, you’re setting an example that will be quoted throughout the world as showing this kind of development is acceptable”.

He added: “We have to be very, very sure before we allow an extension.

“We are fighting a battle for our existence and if you do that, you really cannot make short-term decisions without thinking about the long-term implications.”

The proposed plans for Cambo oilfield, awaiting approval from the UK government, have proved extremely contentious. The head of Oxfam Scotland described the project as “a clear climate contradiction” last month, and said that the UK government “must intervene” to stop the plans if it wants to be a “credible broker” at COP26. 

However, the government frequently uses comments made by the CCC to defend its potential approval of Cambo oilfield, saying that the “advice of the independent CCC is that we will continue to need oil and gas in the coming years as it is still vital to the production of many everyday essentials like medicines”.

When this line was put to Lord Deben by MSPs on the committee, he doubled down on his argument, saying: “There is a real issue about the balance between the fact that we have our interests as a nation, but we have our interests in the fact that climate change is a global problem and we have to have a global answer.

“In those circumstances, it has to be a very, very strong argument to overcome the simple argument that we’ve all got to stop using fossil fuels.”

He added that if the UK were to produce more fossil fuels it could only be called a genuine contribution to the global problem of climate change if other governments reduced their own production. 

Lord Deben was also questioned on the role of hydrogen in the transition to net zero, following the recent publication of the UK Hydrogen Strategy, which closely mirrors Scotland’s. 

The UK government says that hydrogen could provide a third of the UK’s energy by 2050, though some experts have cast doubt on it what they term “an expensive distraction”. 

When asked for his thoughts, Lord Deben said: “Well we are where we are and not where we’d like to be. Where we are, hydrogen is a necessary part of the transition that we have to have.” He continued to say, however, that “we have to realise it is a transition and that we’re not doing it to get stuck at a point in that transition”. 

Lord Deben added that, while there is no easy answer, “we need to keep in front of us all the time the need to move away entirely from fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean to say we don’t have to recognise that it’s not going to happen overnight, and therefore, the role of blue hydrogen in helping to make that transition is very certain”.

“I always talk about it with that caveat - that it is not an answer, it is a transition necessity.”

The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication