Study: Emissions from 40 planned fossil fuel projects would be nearly three times as much as the UK emits in a year

New research, published within days of the start of Cop26 climate talks, reveals that 40 oil, gas and coal projects have been submitted for approval in the UK.

Horse Hill oil site in Surrey. Photo: HHDL

If they got the go-ahead, the study estimated these projects alone would amount to almost three years of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

The schemes comprise seven onshore oil and gas developments, including oil production at Horse Hill in Surrey and at Biscathorpe in Lincolnshire, where a decision is due as world leaders gather for COP26.

There are also 30 offshore projects, including the Cambo oil field off Shetland, and three coal mines, including Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria, the UK’s first in 30 years.

The analysis, published this morning in the report, Tip of the iceberg: The future of fossil extraction, estimated that the 40 developments were projected to emit the equivalent of 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This would be the equivalent of nearly triple the UK’s annual emissions, the report said.

According to the study, just three of the projects (Cambo, Horse Hill and Woodhouse) could emit four times more greenhouse gases than all the UK’s cars produce in a year, the equivalent of 296 million tonnes of CO2.

The report’s authors, Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation, said the level of projected emissions from the projects was incompatible with the UK government’s climate agenda and at odds with recent climate research.

Work commissioned by the International Energy Agency concluded that no new fossil fuel developments should be approved if targets were to be met to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C.

A study by UK academics, published in September 2021, found that the vast majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground to achieve the 1.5C limit. The authors said earlier this week that the UK government must “immediately halt any new extraction projects.”

The UK’s advisor, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), has said fossil fuel consumption must decline sharply to comply with the target of net zero emissions by 2050.

While the CCC has said some oil and gas will continue to be used, its chair, Lord Deben, told the Scottish Parliament in August 2021:

“the justification for any new oil and gas exploration or production has to be very strong indeed, and I cannot say that I have seen that so far.”

He also said:

“there might be some occasions when we think that [oil or gas] development could help our move towards net zero to such a degree that it would be worth doing. However, we always have to remember that, once you do that, you set an example that will be quoted throughout the world as showing that such development is acceptable.”

DrillOrDrop reported this week on an investigation for the Clean Air Task Force which revealed significant methane emissions from onshore oil sites in the UK.

“Domestic oil and gas would cut emissions”, says industry

Onshore oil and gas companies have argued recently that domestic production would help the UK achieve net zero emissions.

Last week, Matt Cartwright, the commercial director of UKOG, told councillors on the Isle of Wight:

“By displacing imports with indigenous oil we could cut emissions by 64%, without taking account of the emissions to transport the oil to the UK.

“We should not rely on oil imports that are dirtier than ours, more expensive than ours and generate needless carbon emissions.”

He added that indigenous oil and gas was “the bridge towards the renewables we need”.

But this argument was rejected today by Friends of the Earth. Campaigner Danny Gross said:

“Fossil fuel companies like to claim that domestically-produced oil and gas contributes fewer climate-wrecking emissions than that which is imported.

“But really, there’s no way to ensure that oil and gas produced in the UK would displace production overseas.

“Instead, UK fossil fuel extraction projects increase the global supply and consumption of coal oil and gas, which fuels, not abates, climate breakdown.”

“Government failing to listen to simple truth”

Danny Gross said no new oil, gas or coal extraction projects should be approved if climate breakdown is to be prevented. He said: 

“The government is failing to listen to this simple truth. It’s in the industry’s interests to push through new developments because it knows the writing is on the wall, but it’s up to government to put our ailing planet and the people on it first. 

“It’s going to be an embarrassing UN climate conference for the prime minister if he doesn’t end support for new fossil fuel extraction projects, here and elsewhere, immediately. The UK can’t sit on its high horse demanding other countries reduce emissions without doing the right thing first.” 

Rebekah Diski, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, said: 

“Yet again, the government’s actions undermine its lofty words on climate. It says it wants to ‘keep 1.5C alive’, but as this report shows it is supporting new fossil fuel projects at home and abroad, which are completely incompatible with that target.  
“If it wants to be taken seriously as a climate leader, and meet its own climate targets, it must immediately end support for fossil fuels, help poorer countries do the same, and ensure a just transition for workers by creating good, green jobs.” 

Counting emissions

Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation said the 40 projects they identified had failed to account properly for the emissions from the use of their product.

These emissions, known as indirect, scope 3 or downstream, come from burning oil, gas or coal in power stations, home boilers, cars, or industrial plants or when fossil fuels are made into other products.

Fossil fuel companies have argued that these emissions can’t be estimated reliably and should not be considered when assessing the environmental impact of their plans. Instead, they concentrate on the smaller volume emissions, known as direct or scope 1 and 2, from their own operations and equipment or from purchased electricity, fuel, energy, travel, distribution and waste.  

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol states that “Scope 3 emissions can represent the largest source of emissions for companies and present the most significant opportunities to influence GHG reductions.”

But council planners have accepted the oil and gas company argument that the contribution of the use of their products to climate change is nothing to do with the production site itself.

This issue is the focus of a legal challenge involving the Horse Hill site. A local campaigner, Sarah Finch, is going to the Court of Appeal on 16 November 2021 to argue that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully when it did not consider Scope 3 emissions before granting permission for long-term oil production.

The council’s position, that it acted within the regulations, is supported by the UK government through the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation called today for the government to withdraw its support for Surrey County Council in the Horse Hill legal challenge.

They also recommended an end for fossil fuel support at home and overseas. Ministers should, they said:

  • Rule out all new fossil fuel extraction projects that have not received development consent
  • Cancel all future licensing of oil and gas fields
  • Change energy national policy statements to specify that additional fossil fuel extraction infrastructure is not needed
  • Set a policy of not granting planning permission for new onshore fossil fuel extraction
  • End all financial support for fossil fuels, including tax breaks, in the UK and abroad.
  • Set a timescale for the phase out of production from existing developed fossil fuel extraction projects
  • Commit to the early closure of already-producing or under-development fields will be required
  • Repeal the objective of Maximising Economic Recovery (MER) of the UK’s offshore oil and gas, and replace it with aims for a fully renewable energy system

Updated 28/10/21 to correct impact of the 40 projects on UK emissions.

13 replies »

  1. So now they, and their supporters, have to choose: will it be the planet, my fellow human beings, or will it be, for a short time, me?

  2. So, Danny, unless you live in N.Korea, or a few other places, supply does not create extra consumption. It has not in the UK since around 1950 for oil and gas. Simple truth. I do not use more fuel if it is produced locally. I use exactly the same amount.(Actually I consume a little less, as less fuel has been used to get it to me!) If I want a new pair of hinges for my gate and don’t buy a pair made in China but a pair made in the Midlands, I still only buy one pair-but create less transport emissions. (That may mean I pay a little more, with oil/gas it doesn’t.)

    Perhaps the answer would be to get some work experience in a company that produces stuff for export? You would find when they lose a customer over the horizon, perhaps because that customer starts to buy from a local source, the exporting company does not continue to stuff it’s warehouse with product for that customer. If you feel that may be difficult with regard to gas and oil, well it isn’t-as can be seen very routinely when OPEC increase or decrease output just by turning a few valves-usually to adjust the market price. And, cartels in other markets do just the same.

    By all means argue your case, but perhaps the case would be better served if you avoided the fantasy supply chain scenario. Others may recognize the fantasy and ignore all of your message as a result-as I did. Don’t try to sell any product with such a false statement included. You will not sell much if you do.

  3. Interesting headlines. I see that, if all the proposed developments come to fruition, and all produced is used, then it adds up to 3 years of UK emissions? So, I am not sure where the tripling of emissions comes from (it all seems to add up to three years of total emissions).

    • Usual scaremongering. Daily Mail type headline…. Presumably if the oil / gas / coal from these developments displaces imports / reserves depletion then the net impact is zero?

      Hewes – yes it does seem to be 3 years total emissions assuming everything is in addition to current usage.

      Maths is not a strong point for most antis…….

      • Hi Paul,
        You may by coincidence be right in your assessment of the mathematical abilities of most of those who object to the despoliation of the planet by fossil fuels. Or you may not. Evidence is a bit sparse. Most of them however will be able to calculate that a new well tapped in the UK adds to the sum total of wells tapped and fossil fuel produced. This simple sum remains a problem for some polluters and no efforts to distract attention from this by said polluters and their ilk will change the facts.

        • If you can’t get that simple sum correct, 1720, then thanks for proving the point.

          Total wells tapped correct, fossil fuel produced incorrect.

          Evidence is not that sparse, with volunteers always willing to add to the evidence. Looks as if the numeracy drive has a way to go.

        • Iaith1720

          Interesting thought. For sure, for each oil and gas well drilled, it adds to the total number of wells ever drilled on the planet. For each well brought into production, it adds to the total number of wells ever brought into production. For each BBL of oil produced it adds to the global, all time total of oil produced (and we assume used).

          Its the same for coal mines, water wells, flint mining, chicken farming and so on (as well as working out that a new human born adds to the total of humans born ever).

          However, I did not think that was the discussion, rather than the total produced globally was an issue. Hence, disappointing to see that there is no recommendation from the Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation to just turn off gas imports (just by turning a valve) nor turning away oil imports at the terminals.

          Meanwhile, objectors to solar farms are taking a leaf from the anti fossil fuel handbook, to hold back a number of such farms in Lincs. People will be no doubt au fait with the usual reasons for not on my doorstep. Industrialization of the countryside, looks ugly, no local benefit, no jobs for locals, roads too narrow / wide / bendy / hilly / flat, used by horses / cyclists / walkers, near a nature reserve, uses agricultural land, can see it from my house, lowers value of property, resident are stressed by it all, putting profit before people, Construction dust and silicosis, lack of appropriate inspectorate resources to inspect every construction site, no wheel wash probably, should be sited somewhere else, electromagnetic radiation reduces life expectancy (not sure why that is a worry, but I do not expect lots of peer reviewed papers showing increased child mortality next to solar farms, as there is no money in writing them).

          Ye shall reap as ye shall sow, of course, so lets expect lots of trouble and delays in getting the solar farms built. They are – hmmm, over 100 times the footprint of Biscathorpe, and presumably will be there for ever, so cannot be considered temporary?

          Maybe the ‘no solar desert here’ group will be gluing themselves to the roads soon?

          • Indeed hewes62.

            Exactly the same with interconnectors and nuclear. There doesn’t seem to be much left-apart from a load of disparate groups all insulated within their own bubbles-as will be demonstrated so clearly over the next couple of weeks.

    • Dear Hewes62
      Thanks very much for your comment. You are quite right. I misunderstood the point being made by the authors. I’ve updated the headline and text. I’m grateful to you for pointing this out.
      Best wishes, Ruth

  4. An interesting dilemma, Paul. With UK following a drive towards better numeracy the antis seem to be misreading the future target audience. But, maths. is not the only area. XR going round burning stuff and then claiming they are there to campaign for the environment is hardly coherent either.

    And, yes, the net impact is zero-or even less than that taking into account transport emissions. And, will remain so whilst UK is a net importer, where the data indicates it would be for the duration of these projects within the net zero plans.

  5. Further reading linked in today’s Guardian:

    “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires far-reaching transformations across power generation, buildings, industry, transport, land use, coastal zone management, and agriculture, as well as the immediate scale-up of technological carbon removal and climate finance. This report translates these transitions into 40 targets for 2030 and 2050, with measurable indicators.

    Transformations, particularly those driven by new technology adoption, often unfold slowly before accelerating after crossing a tipping point. Nearly a quarter of indicators assessed new technology adoption, with some already growing exponentially. This report considers such nonlinear change in its methodology.

    The transitions required to avoid the worst climate impacts are not happening fast enough. Of the 40 indicators assessed, none are on track to reach 2030 targets. Change is heading in the right direction at a promising but insufficient speed for 8 and in the right direction but well below the required pace for 17. Progress has stagnated for 3, while change for another 3 is heading in the wrong direction entirely. Data are insufficient to evaluate the remaining 9.

    This report also identifies underlying conditions that enable change—supportive policies, innovations, strong institutions, leadership, and shifts in social norms. Finance for climate action, for example, must increase nearly 13-fold to meet the estimated need in 2030.”

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