How can continuing to extract oil and gas from beneath our seas play a role in tackling climate change? Shouldn’t we just shut down North Sea production now?
Legitimate and pressing questions – but ones where simplistic answers are just not good enough.
We are on a journey away from fossil fuels having grasped the urgency of the global climate crisis, and we are making tremendous progress.
Take coal, once our key source of power. Now less than two per cent of our electricity comes from burning coal – unthinkable even a decade ago.
In the first quarter of 2020, power generated from wind farms, solar panels, biomass sources and hydro for the first time exceeded that produced from coal, oil and gas. Between 2000 and 2020, the share of power we got from low carbon sources more than doubled from 25.3 per cent to 59.3 per cent.
Tremendous progress, but much remains to be done as we drive decarbonisation to deliver the UK Government’s commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050.
Net Zero is an ambitious target for our industrialised economy, but one we believe is achievable. And it is crucial to remember that Net Zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere, eliminating our contribution to climate change.
It has never been about stopping use of fossil fuels entirely, but rather about reducing dependence on them to a minimum while using technology to mitigate production of damaging gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Even The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognises the world will still need oil and gas for years to come.
The reality is that greener transport and homes will need electricity. It is not possible for renewables to entirely supply that in the medium-to-short term.
Although our thirst for oil and gas is fading fast, we’re not at a stage where renewables can entirely supply the electricity Britain still needs to keep the lights on in our homes, hospitals, schools and factories. Meanwhile, hydrocarbons remain key to everyday essentials such as medicines and detergents.
Many readers will be old enough to recall the energy crises of the Seventies, when children did their homework by candlelight and the economies of the world teetered on the verge of collapse.
To avoid a repetition, the UK must have ‘security of supply’, the idea that we have our own reserves of fuel to reduce our dependence on imports.
That’s where the North Sea comes in. Even without a crisis, domestic supplies trump imports, not least because our world-leading environmental standards ensure production is as green as possible.
Take Cambo, the oilfield off the West of Shetland awaiting a decision on extraction from the independent regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority. Pictures of rigs with flames pouring out are often used as an example of what’s to come and it’s not the case.
If Cambo – first licensed in 2001 – gains approval, it will use a method of extraction where the majority of gas is collected for use. There will be no routine ‘flaring’ to burn off gas, a practice which itself creates carbon dioxide. And that’s just one example of the modern industry’s commitment to using technology which minimises environmental impact.
A cornerstone of our plan to effectively and carefully manage the transition to cleaner, low-carbon and renewable energy is taking the industry with us, not shutting them down overnight.
The sector is a huge employer, with estimates of over 70,000 jobs in Scotland alone, and they have a key role as the industry changes. Robert Gordon University concluded that 90 per cent of oil and gas workers have skills readily transferable to renewables and low-carbon.
It makes sense – experts in installing and maintaining offshore equipment have a great future in renewables. Pipelines which once brought fossil fuels ashore could be reversed to pump carbon dioxide underground. Engineers and technicians working on oil and gas today can be tomorrow’s low-carbon champions.
We’re helping that happen through our North Sea Transition Deal – the first of its kind in the G7. It features investment of up to £14-16 billion by 2030 in new energy technologies, with support to enable CCUS (carbon-capture, utilisation and storage) and the production of clean hydrogen at scale.
In time, what we are doing now will be seen as the start of a green industrial revolution, aligned with our aims at the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November.
North Sea oil and gas meets existing needs, rather than creating new demand, and the UK can judiciously utilise natural resources whilst still leading the drive to a cleaner, greener, future.