In 2020, the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy commissioned a review into the licensing of oil and gas exploration in the UK, which recommended that a ‘checkpoint’ test be introduced to ensure that future licensing did not fall foul of the UK’s climate objectives.
Earlier this year, this proposal was taken up as part of the North Sea Transition Deal, but has faced criticism from climate groups who point to the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Report, which found that the approval of any new oil and gas developments is inconsistent with the world reaching net zero by 2050.
A consultation paper on the proposals, published yesterday, says that the proposed compatibility tests would only apply to new licences for oil or gas exploration and production - not to proposed developments that come under licences which have already been awarded. In October, NGO Friends of the Earth (FOE) revealed that there were 30 such offshore projects already licensed and expecting to receive a decision on development consent before 2025.
These projects, which FOE say are projected to emit approximately a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent if approved, would not qualify for the climate compatibility checks.
The government says that projects in areas for which the developer already holds a licence are already subject to high levels of regulation before consent, including “rigorous scrutiny” from both the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) and the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA).
The consultation seeks views on six potential tests, ranging from one which would look at the operational greenhouse gas emissions for a project - though the emissions generated by the burning of extracted fuel would not count towards a project’s emission footprint - to another which would compare the sector’s progress in the development of energy transition technologies with the commitments set out in the North Sea Transition Deal.
The energy and climate change minister, Greg Hands, said that the new checkpoint would be key to the government’s plans to support the oil and gas sector during its transition to net zero.
“It helps safeguard the future of this vital UK industry as we create more opportunities for green jobs and investment across the country,” he added.
However, the idea of climate compatibility checks has not been welcomed by climate change campaigners, who say that the approval of any new oil or gas exploration projects is antithetical to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Danny Gross, climate campaigner at FOE, said: “The idea that a new oil or gas project can ever be ‘climate compatible’ is pure fantasy. Scientists have told us repeatedly that approving new developments is inconsistent with limiting global heating to 1.5C. Yet our leaders continue to say one thing and do another, with puffed-up announcements that offer little on close inspection.”
He added that if the new “half-baked” approach to checkpoint tests allows future gas and oil licences to be granted, the UK will fall “catastrophically behind” on climate mitigation measures.
This was echoed by Greenpeace UK’s policy director, Dr Doug Parr, who said that the government’s suggestions for various tests “might be favoured by industry” but that they are not compatible with the climate crisis.
“A real climate compatibility test would bring an end to new oil and gas licences,” he said, “and accelerate our progress towards cleaner energy and a just transition for oil and gas workers. If the UK wants to make any claim of climate leadership, it’s hard to see how it can do anything else.”
The consultation is open for comments until 28 February 2022.