The UK does not need more onshore oil to deliver energy security, net zero emissions, jobs or feedstocks, a new report has concluded.
Written by the Weald Action Group campaign network, the report refutes arguments made by the onshore oil industry when applying for planning permission for new oil sites. These include a key claim that UK onshore oil has a lower carbon footprint than imported oil.
The group, which opposes oil and gas developments in southern England, accuses the hydrocarbon industry of “misinformation”. It says planners needed to ask more questions, “rather than taking oil companies’ claims at face value”.
The report’s key conclusions include:
- New UK oil sites would increase the global supply of oil rather than shutting down sites in other countries
- There is no low-carbon oil: attempts to compare the carbon footprint of different sources of oil are misleading and ignore the complexity of the global oil market
- Additional onshore oil fields, with a lifetime of 20+ years, are not needed to maintain security of supply because demand for oil is falling
- Applications for new oil sites promise very few jobs or are unstaffed
- More oil is not needed to make additional plastic, even with increased need for personal protective equipment because of the Covid-19 crisis.
The report, Why we don’t need more onshore oil in the UK, calls for an urgent review of policies that influence planning decisions on onshore oil, describing them as out of date.
It also recommends the Committee on Climate Change should review the role of oil in the transition to net zero carbon by 2050 and provide new advice to government based on current evidence and science.
Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at University College London, said of the study:
“This excellent report shows that new onshore oil wells in the UK are economically unnecessary as well as being environmentally at odds with the government’s climate rhetoric.”
Ann Stewart, of the Weald Action Group, said
“We need urgent change. Decision-makers are under pressure from oil companies wanting to expand operations across the South of England. They are out of step with the times and the science. The environmental costs are too high and the oil their sites might produce is not needed”.
Oil and gas companies state that oil produced in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than imports from a long distance away.
The report argued:
“There is no low carbon oil. Claims that new UK oil is needed based on comparisons of the carbon footprint of different sources are extremely narrow in their framing and ignore the real impact of new oil wells on the climate.
“In the absence of a global cap on oil supply, any new oil well approved for commercial production will likely increase the amount of oil in the global market and not replace that which is already in production. This will lead to a net increase in global greenhouse gas emissions when the oil is burned to generate energy.”
The report acknowledged that transporting oil by ship would add to its carbon footprint. But it said the oil company claims belied the workings of the global oil market.
UK onshore oil may not displace long-distance imports. It could, instead, displace oil arriving by pipeline from Norway, which may have a lower carbon footprint than UK oil, the report said.
Domestically-produced onshore oil may not necessarily be used in the UK because we export crude oil and petroleum productions, it added.
The report addresses a key argument made by hydrocarbon companies that new onshore exploration and production is essential to replace declining supply from the UK continental shelf.
It says this was misleading because:
- UK energy security compares well with OECD countries in the diversity and political stability of oil imports
- The UK has been a net importer of oil since 2006 and while the overall trend in domestic oil production is down, recently production has increased
- Demand for oil is falling in the UK and action to meet carbon budgets will require policies to speed up reduction in demand
- Imports may also fall
- New onshore fields are not needed to maintain security of supply
Earlier this year, UK Oil & Gas plc responded to a protest at one of its sites saying oil and gas are used to as a feedstock for products including personal protective equipment and other forms of useful plastic.
The report described this argument as a “myth”:
“Currently, most oil is not used to make plastic, it is burned to generate energy. In Europe 4-6% of oil and gas is used to make plastic and 87% to generate energy.”
It said oil and gas companies were banking on an increase in demand for plastics. But it said this was now very uncertain because plastics could be reused and recycled numerous times.”
“We do not need more oil to make plastics. Plastics are having a catastrophic impact on the environment, particularly the oceans and seas, and every effort should be made to curtail their use where this is possible or to use sustainable alternatives where these exist.”
Onshore oil and gas companies frequently say their proposals will generate local, highly skilled jobs.
The report said these claims were often not backed by actual figures and were hard to substantiate. The facilities seem to run with a small onsite workforce, it said. There is a strong overlap, it said, between the skills needed to work in the oil and gas sector and those needed for offshore wind, marine renewables and energy efficiency work.
Planning policies and climate science
The report accuses of oil and gas companies of justifying plans for new sites by talking about the “need” for oil. They refer to energy strategies that pre-date the Paris climate agreement and the UK’s net zero target, the report said.
“many councils across the UK have also made Climate Emergency declarations. Consequently, there is a conflict between the climate change obligations and ambitions of Councils and the outdated legislation that promotes the maximum economic recovery of domestic fossil fuels.”
The report said a legal ruling in March 2019 had removed a policy requirement on councils to facilitate exploration and extraction of onshore oil and gas. It also argued that a clarification in the National Planning Policy Framework’s meant that “arguably new fossil fuel extraction does not meet sustainable development objectives”.
Mineral planning authorities must abandon any presumption in favour of new onshore oil developments, the report said.
“They should assess all the impacts flowing from their decisions, including the indirect greenhouse gas emissions from produced oil, and align their decision-making with their own climate emergency declarations.”
DrillOrDrop has invited comments from UK Oil & Gas plc, Rathlin Energy and the industry organisation UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG).
Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG, said:
“Failure to develop indigenous oil locks the UK into a reliance to import 3.4bn barrels over the next 30 years, representing £170bn leaving our shores.
“Oil is not used just in the creation of plastics and transport fuel, but in vital medicines, hygiene products and, saliently, energy efficiency materials.
“Ultimately, utilising our domestic oil resource serves to provide the UK with a lower carbon source of oil produced in a world-leading regulatory environment, generating far more by way of local economic gain than the fuel we import across oceans and continents from those less cautious of the environmental impact. There is a prominent role for electricity generated by wind and solar power in the future, but electricity is just one form of energy, and it cannot replace the fuel that builds, not just burns.”
Updated 16/10/2020 with comment from UKOOG