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.
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.”
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.