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UK ministers give green light to new North Sea oil and gas operations

The move sparked an angry reaction from climate change campaigners, who say a new licensing round could be illegal.

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Climate campaigners are threatening legal action after the UK Government gave its backing to an expansion of oil and gas operations in the North Sea.

The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) is now expected to undertake a new round of oil and gas licensing early next month.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said that could lead to more than 100 new licences being granted, which he claimed could “safeguard” UK energy supplies and support more than 70,000 jobs in Scotland.

But environmental campaigners reacted angrily to the announcement, made by Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The support for new licensing comes as the UK Government seeks to increase domestic energy production in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has led to increased volatility across the sector.

Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said improving energy security is an ‘absolute priority’ for the UK Government (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Rees-Mogg said: “In light of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and weaponisation of energy, strengthening our energy security is an absolute priority.”

He said new Prime Minister Liz Truss had made clear her determination for the UK to be a net energy exporter by 2040, and added: “To get there we will need to explore all avenues available to us through solar, wind, oil and gas production.”

Greenpeace accused the UK Government of “pandering to outdated, fringe fossil fuel interests”.

Philip Evans, an energy security campaigner with the group, said: “New fossil fuel licences are the opposite of energy security.

“We believe this licensing round is unlawful and we’ll be looking at taking legal action.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland also made its opposition clear, with campaigner Freya Aitchison saying: “In ploughing forward with this new licensing round, the UK Government is effectively denying the reality of the climate emergency.”

She said “devastating climate impacts” being seen in recent flooding in Pakistan, typhoons in Japan and this summer’s record breaking heatwave in the UK are “being driven by burning fossil fuels”.

Ms Aitchison called on the Scottish Government to “stand up to these reckless plans to expand fossil fuels and hand out permits for oil and gas companies to explore and drill in the North Sea”.

She insisted: “These plans will lock us into a climate-destroying energy system for decades to come, entrenching reliance on this volatile industry in places like Aberdeen, and leaving people all across Scotland exposed to rocketing energy bills.”

However Mr Jack said the UK Government is working to ensure security of energy supply and “exploring the further potential of the North Sea is crucial to this”.

He said: “This new round of oil and gas licensing, which is expected to lead to more than 100 new licences, will not only safeguard our domestic supply and protect UK households, businesses and public services from volatile global prices, it will also support more than 70,000 energy sector jobs in Scotland.

“Supporting this sector has always been a vital part of our net-zero strategy, ensuring we have energy resilience while investing in renewable sources such as wind, tidal and solar power.”

Scottish Net Zero and Energy Secretary Michael Matheson stressed the Scottish Government position is “clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations”.

He added: “It is alarming that the UK Government appears to believe that licensing of more than 100 new oil and gas fields will not ‘materially impact’ the ability of the UK to reach net-zero by 2050, and reckless to believe that this approach is in any way consistent with our climate obligations.”

Mr Matheson said it is “deeply frustrating” that calls for four-nation discussions on the issue were “ignored” by the UK Government, and Scottish ministers were not given advance sight of the plans despite them having a “fundamental bearing on securing a just transition for our oil and gas sector”.

He added: “Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine only serves to highlight the importance of accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources.

“New oil and gas fields do not present a timely solution to the current energy price crisis, nor our energy security needs.”

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