Is net zero dead? Sunak confirms 100 new oil and gas licences

Environmental campaigners have slammed the government's decision to grant 100 new oil and gas licences

Rishi Sunak is being accused of abandoning his net zero pledges after confirming at least 100 new oil and gas licences will be granted in the UK.

The prime minister defended the plan, saying it was essential to ensure the UK's energy security to avoid reliance on nations such as China for resources and insisting other measures would mitigate the impact.

He announced millions of pounds in funding for the Acorn carbon capture project, a joint venture between Shell UK and other companies, which will trap emissions and store them in a way that will not harm the atmosphere.

“Even when we’ve reached net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will come from oil and gas. But there are those who would rather that it come from hostile states than from the supplies we have here at home," the prime minister said when announcing his new policy.

But the head of Oxfam Scotland said his plan “flies in the face of climate science and common sense” and scuppers plans for net zero by the halfway point of this century.

Jamie Livingstone said: “The UN has made clear that we must end our global addiction to fossil fuels, so this decision sends a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments.”

Labour said the PM was attempting to wage a "culture war on climate to appease his split party, losing track of what he believes from day to day".

Tory in-fighting erupts over green policies

Mr Sunak has been seeking to please many of his own MPs who oppose climate policies which could cost the taxpayer, with added pressure piled on by the Uxbridge by election which the Tories narrowly won by opposing a new tax in London on high emission vehicles.

But a former energy minister has criticised the PM's announcement, saying backing future oil and gas projects in the North Sea is “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time”.

Chris Skidmore said: “It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries and not fossil fuels.

“It is on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment. And it is on the wrong side of history, that will not look favourably on the decision taken today."

Proposed carbon capture funding has been welcomed by the SNP. Credit: PA

Former environment minister Zac Goldsmith, who recently resigned in protest at the government's lack of progress on green policies, commended the Tory MP for speaking out and said he was "exactly right".

But any plan to row back on green policies costly to the taxpayer would be backed by senior right-wing Tories such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Lord Frost and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg.

They were among 40 Tory MPs and peers to write to the PM over the weekend, urging him to water down the plan to outlaw the sale of new non-electric cars by 2030.

The letter said: "We urge you to review this policy to make sure car ownership remains affordable and manufacturers are protected. 

"A move to 2035 to match competitor countries such as the EU bloc and the USA would seem entirely sensible."

Sunak accused of 'gaslighting' public with claims home-drilled gas is essential for net zero

Dozens of social media users accused the PM of "gaslighting" as they questioned how drilling for more oil could help achieve the government's net zero ambitions.

And environmental charity Greenpeace said carbon capture a form of "greenwashing" which would allow fossil fuel producers to stay in business.

Philip Evans from Greenpeace UK Climate, said: “This new announcement is nothing but a cynical political ploy to sow division, and the climate is collateral damage."

He added: “Relying on fossil fuels is terrible for our energy security, the cost of living, and the climate."

On carbon capture, his colleague and Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr, told the BBC: "We do think that this is going to be based on the continued use of fossil fuels, it's going to be based therefore on a greenwashing of the sector."

But Mr Sunak has insisted the new oil and gas drilling licences will help the UK achieve net zero carbon emissions.

Speaking to broadcasters on a visit to Aberdeenshire, the PM said approving new licences for drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea is “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”.

He said domestic oil and gas saves “two, three, four times the amount of carbon emissions” than “shipping it from halfway around the world”.

He also said government funding in the North Sea could support as many as 50,000 jobs.

In a statement, Mr Sunak said: “Now, more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalise on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy to British homes and businesses.

“Even when we’ve reached net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will come from oil and gas. But there are those who would rather that it come from hostile states than from the supplies we have here at home."

Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps said the commitment for new oil and gas licences will “drive forward our energy independence and our economy for generations”.

Shadow minister Jess Phillips told ITV News the PM's attempt to divide on climate policy is the "pathetic death throes of a dying government".

Sir Keir Starmer’s party would ban new North Sea oil and gas exploration, but the party leader has also said in the past that a Labour government would not interfere with existing licences.

Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said: “Every family and business is paying the price, in higher energy bills, of 13 years of failed Tory energy policy.

“It is absurd that having left this country so exposed, the Conservative Party is asking the public to believe they can fix it.

“And it’s telling that while Labour focuses on lower bills and good jobs, Rishi Sunak lurches desperately towards a culture war on climate to appease his split party, losing track of what he believes from day to day, depending on which faction he’s met with.

“It’s no way to govern and it’s costing working people.”

The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology also criticised the plan, questioning whether the government was really committed to net zero.

REA chief executive Nina Skorupska said: “If the government are serious about delivering energy security, while reaching net zero in a pragmatic way, they should be delivering the cheapest forms of generation."

She added: "Real energy security will be delivered by reinforcing our grid systems and sorting out planning delays so that low-carbon generation can be built quickly."

But Mr Sunak and his ministers have stressed the need to use North Sea fossil fuel resources, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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Such moves have prompted alarm from climate campaigners, with the government already facing opposition to any development of Rosebank, 80 miles north west of the Shetland Isles.

The prime minister faced questions about his green credentials over the weekend after he ordered a review of the rollout of low-traffic neighbourhoods, in an apparent bid to win motorist support for the Tories.

It comes as the Financial Times also revealed that the government had moved to make changes to the UK’s post-Brexit carbon trading scheme, offering more allowances to industries and rendering it cheaper to pollute.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “We’ve taken significant steps to improve the ambition of the UK Emission Trading Scheme, and recently announced a reduction in the cap of 30% – to bring the scheme in line with our net zero goals.

“We want to ensure a smooth transition to the net zero cap allowing the market and participants time to adapt, while ensuring the strength of overall ambition is not affected.”