Climate activists have accused Rishi Sunak of “pandering” to corporate interests after the announcement of 27 new North Sea oil and gas licences.
The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) said the new licences have been awarded in areas prioritised because they have the potential to go into production more quickly than others.
The organisation said that oil and gas will continue to play a role in the UK’s energy mix for decades to come as the country transitions.
But climate activists and green groups have condemned the move, arguing that more oil and gas production will not improve UK energy security.
Philip Evans, climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “UK voters want warmer homes, cheaper energy bills and a government that’s not afraid to take on the climate crisis.
“Instead they’re being ignored so Rishi Sunak can pander to corporate interests, with licences for fossil fuels that’ll make no difference to bills, do nothing for energy security, and produce yet more profits for dizzyingly wealthy companies like Shell.
“They profit while we get colder and poorer, and the UK turns into a nation that’s fuelling the climate crisis rather than helping to fix it.
“Greenpeace plans to fight these licences in the courtroom, and we’re mobilising voters to prioritise climate at the next election, because frankly we’re all sick of these backward-facing policies.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “Giving the green light to dozens of new fossil fuel licences is nothing short of a climate crime.
“Since much of the oil and gas will be sold on global markets, it won’t improve the UK’s energy security and it won’t cut household energy bills either.
“When climate scientists have stated clearly that we can have no new oil and gas if we are to keep below the critical 1.5C temperature limit, this Government is flying in the face of those warnings and jeopardising a liveable planet for future generations.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “The Government’s disregard for the wellbeing of future generations has never been clearer than in its latest announcement of 27 new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.
“Tackling the climate and nature crises should be an absolute priority for policy makers and failure to do so means the Government is failing in its first duty to protect its citizens.”
Meanwhile Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said: “With the Government failing on insulating homes, U-turning on rules that would cut the cost of living for renters in the worst properties, this is at best a distraction.
“The only real way to insulate the UK and homeowners from volatile gas prices is to help them use less.
“If the Government wants to help people with high energy bills and make the UK more energy-secure it would be boosting electric heat pumps further and taking the country back to a time when millions of upgrades were being made each year to homes.”
Heather Plumpton, senior policy analyst at Green Alliance, also said the approval of 27 new drilling licences will not have an impact on energy bills.
She said: “Experience shows that it’s fossil fuel companies who will benefit instead: the owners of Rosebank, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field, will be effectively handed nearly £3 billion to develop the field.
“The North Sea mostly contains oil, not gas, and like 80% of UK oil Rosebank’s will likely be exported.
“We’d have to buy it back from international markets, while they take the profits – Equinor made a record £62 billion in 2022.”
It comes after the Government supported the development of the controversial Rosebank oil and gas field in the North Sea, which could produce emissions equal to that of 400 million people or 90 countries, according to analysts.
There are currently 284 offshore fields in production in the UK North Sea and an estimated 5.25 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) in total projected production to 2050.
The new licences come as part of the 33rd Oil and Gas Licensing Round, which was launched in October 2022 with 931 blocks and part-blocks made available for application.
Stuart Payne, NSTA chief executive, said: “Ensuring that the UK has broad options for energy security is at the heart of our work and these licences were awarded in the expectation that the licensees will get down to work immediately.
“The NSTA will work with the licensees to make sure that where production can be achieved it happens as quickly as possible.”
UK Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho said: “As recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee – we’ll continue to need oil and gas over the coming decades as we deliver net zero
“It’s common sense to reduce our reliance on foreign imports and use our own supply – it’s better for our economy, the environment and our energy security.”