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New oil and gas licences signal Britain is not serious about tackling climate change

(Alamy)

4 min read

We’re not even two months into the year and multiple storms have already caused not just property damage and business disruption across the country, but sadly also the loss of life.

At the same time, millions of people are struggling to afford to stay warm – with two million predicted to disconnect their supply this winter – because of our continued high dependency on expensive gas to power homes. Yet this government’s plans to introduce more regular oil and gas licensing offer nothing by way of solution. In fact, they are making our problems worse.

At the end of last year, which was the hottest ever recorded globally, the UK joined nearly 200 countries at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai to finally agree to "transition away from fossil fuels". However, the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which the government is currently pushing through Parliament, seeks to introduce a mandatory annual oil and gas licensing round in its misguided drive to ‘max out’ the North Sea.

It’s one of the worst pieces of legislation that I have ever seen

So far the government is failing – or wilfully refusing – to understand that this bill will not address any of the problems facing the country. It won’t make any real difference to energy security – as the former boss of BP, among many, has confirmed. New licences would provide the equivalent of just four days of additional gas a year between now and 2050. It won’t lower energy bills – as the Energy Secretary herself has publicly admitted. And it runs directly counter to this country’s commitments to meet our climate goals and stay within the safe climate limits – the Climate Change Committee, UN Secretary General, and the world’s climate scientists are all in agreement that new oil and gas licensing is inconsistent with this critical aim.

The truth is that this bill only really does two things. It seeks to fracture the UK’s unique political consensus surrounding the need to move, in line with science, to a clean energy future. And sends an unmistakable signal to the global community that the UK is turning its back on being a climate leader. This is not a legacy the government should be proud of.

In January, along with other Liberal Democrats, I joined more than 30 MPs and peers representing all major political Parties in urging the Energy Secretary to withdraw this bill. Instead, we argue, Parliament should be prioritising how to urgently deliver genuine answers to the twin energy affordability and climate crises that Britain is struggling with.

Rather than work together across parties to find solutions, though, this government seems bent on sowing division ahead of the next general election. It is even refusing to listen to parliamentarians within its own ranks, including former prime minister Theresa May and ex-COP26 president Alok Sharma, who were among many Conservative MPs to have spoken out against the bill or refused to vote for it. Chris Skidmore, previously the energy minister who signed net zero into law, stood down in protest over the bill and the government’s obsessive focus on oil and gas.

More worryingly, this government seems wholly unconcerned that its bill will do nothing to secure jobs for Britain’s oil and gas workers who have helped power this country for decades. In the past ten years, despite issuing hundreds of new drilling permits, jobs supported by the oil and gas sector have fallen by over 200,000. New licensing will not provide the security that the 30,000 people still directly employed in the industry, or the 100,000 in the supply chain, need.

What they need is a proper plan that helps the workforce, and the country as a whole, transition to a clean renewable energy future. What they’re getting instead is a political distraction, which risks leaving them behind just as the global shift away from oil and gas gathers speed.

The oil and gas industry has undoubtedly brought economic benefits to this country (though nothing like neighbouring Norway, which built a trillion dollar national wealth fund from its North Sea assets). But that time has passed.

The government’s latest concession to the industry – the licensing bill – won’t do anything to help people still struggling with unaffordable energy bills, or to shore up UK energy independence, or boost the economy. It does, however, damage the UK’s prospects for a cheaper renewable future and our standing as a leading climate voice in the world.

When it’s clear that the consequences of delaying climate action are now playing out around us, I will go further and say it’s one of the worst pieces of legislation that I have ever seen, and it should be withdrawn.

 

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and Liberal Democrat shadow leader of the House of Commons and the spokesperson for energy and climate change and transport 

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