Alok Sharma has said the government’s oil and gas bill going through the Commons will not cut household energy costs or create jobs and instead will break the UK’s promise to phase out fossil fuels.
During a debate on the offshore petroleum licensingbill, which would place the North Sea Transition Authority under a duty to run annual applications for new offshore oil and gas licences, the former Cop26 president criticised the government’s push to “max out” the North Sea. MPs vote on the bill’s second reading on Monday night.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of hundreds of scientists, has said no new oil and gas licences should be granted if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Going beyond this would cause climate catastrophe, ruining the lives of millions. UK ministers promised to phase out oil and gas at last year’s Cop28 conference in Dubai.
Referring to minister Graham Stuart who represented the UK at the conference, Sharma said: “My right honourable friend tweeted himself at Cop28 that there must be an unabated phaseout of fossil fuels to meet our climate goals. But today we have a bill before this house, the sole purpose of which is to double down on granting more oil and gas production licences. I do not believe, and it pains me to say this, that this bill will advance that commitment to transition away from fossil fuels.”
He said the bill would not lower bills or create jobs, despite the claims of the energy secretary, Claire Coutinho. Sharma said: “This bill is about improving domestic energy security. But I think we all understand that the oil and gas extracted from the North Sea is owned by private enterprises and the government does not control who it is sold to. We all understand that this does not necessarily lower bills. We have to acknowledge that 200,000 jobs supported by the oil and gas industry have been lost over the last decade, and that is despite hundreds of new drilling licences being issued.”
He added that skills in the oil and gas industry were fully transferrable to green energy and said the government should instead focus on “more wind power, more solar, more nuclear”.
Ed Miliband pointed out that a host of Tories including former net zero tsar Chris Skidmore, who resigned as an MP over the government’s plans, former prime minister Theresa May and Sharma had all criticised the bill.
The shadow energy secretary referred to the bill as “climate vandalism”, telling the Commons: “We face massive challenges as a country but it isn’t the scale of our problems that is apparent today, it’s the smallness of their response.” He said the bill was “risible” and would not make any difference to Britain’s energy security.
But Coutinho said the bill would “improve energy security here and in Europe”, adding: “We do not live in a world where we can simply turn off oil and gas.” She said the UK was “blessed” with the North Sea and the fossil fuels contained within.
Some Tory MPs expressed concern over the bill. Vicky Ford, MP for Chelmsford said: “The perception internationally is that by granting these licences, the UK may be walking away from our promises on climate change.”
However, she and fellow Conservative Environment Network member Jerome Mayhew said they would be voting for the bill but at a later date would vote for amendments that would force the UK oil and gas industry to operate in a lower carbon way.
It was thought Theresa May could rebel as she is understood not to agree with the bill, and she was the prime minister to sign net zero into law. However, she was away from the Commons and therefore abstained.
Greenpeace released a YouGov poll of more than 4,000 voters showing the majority (55%) of UK adults surveyed believed the government was not taking a lead on the climate crisis, compared with only 19% who thought it was.
Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Georgia Whitaker said: “These survey results are yet another sign that Sunak’s climate rollbacks and fossil fuel expansion plans aren’t resonating with voters, including those in Conservative heartlands.
“Ministers know that new North Sea oil and gas will make no difference to household bills, and have admitted that approving the Rosebank oilfield will not boost our energy security. So if Sunak is pushing this agenda solely to revive his plummeting ratings, he’s clearly miscalculated – and Conservative MPs will pay the price.”