COP26: Battlelines drawn in Scotland's green revolution

Drilling for North Sea oil is at the centre of a political row which could undermine ambitious targets to reach net zero in the next two decades as Scotland prepares to host the global UN summit, COP26.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson onboard the Esvagt Alba during a visit to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East, off the Aberdeenshire coast.

Plans to extend the life of the Cambo oil field off Shetland’s coast could see it produce up to 255 million more barrels, releasing an estimated 132 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to reach net zero by 2045, while Boris Johnson’s target is 2050.

The controversial scheme is yet to be approved by the Oil and Gas Authority, part of the UK government, but during a visit to the Moray East offshore wind turbines, the Prime Minister said that despite a push towards ending dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewables “no contracts should be ripped up”.

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COP26: Keir Starmer calls for hard timetable to end oil and gas extraction from ...
Friends of the Earth Scotland of campaigners delivering a petition to Downing Street

UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, also in Scotland this week, urged the setting of a “hard-edged timetable” to end the extraction of oil and gas, and said that permission should not be given for the Cambo field to expand, while the Scottish Government, which has distanced itself from the row, is also being urged to oppose the move.

Meanwhile a petition signed by more than 80,000 people was delivered to Downing Street urging the Prime Minister to halt the development proposed by Shell and Siccar Point Energy on climate grounds.

Original licensing for fossil fuel exploration at the site – located in the North Atlantic to the west of the Shetland Islands – was initially approved in 2001 and if the go-ahead for full extraction is given the site could operate until 2050.

Asked about the Cambo proposals on Wednesday, the first day of his trip to Scotland, Mr Johnson said he was unaware of the issue, however when pressed again on the need to end extraction on Thursday, he said: “This was a contract that was signed in… was agreed in 2001 and we can’t just tear up contracts, there is a process to be gone through.

“But what we need to do is use this incredible potential of wind power, and turbines like this… they’ve only been going up in the last four or five years, the size that you’re looking at now, and they’re going to get even bigger.

“So the potential is absolutely enormous. We can power millions and millions of homes across the UK.”

He added: “The oil and gas sector has been a huge part of the UK economy for decades now and there has got to be a smooth and sensible transition.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t massive opportunities to increase the use of green technology. I am here at Moray East Field of wind turbines, I don’t know if you have been here but it is absolutely mind boggling, machines like this simply did not exist six years ago.

“This is a technology that is in its infancy, I have been talking to young people who have transferred from the oil and gas industry into wind power, high skilled jobs in wind power and they are full of ideas about what they are doing.“It is a fantastic transition to see.”

The International Energy Agency has warned that no new oil and gas fields should be developed if global warming is to be limited to 1.5C – a stance backed by the UK climate envoy, John Kerry.

It has also been estimated that an area of land one and a half times the size of Scotland would be needed to offset the harmful emissions produced by Cambo.

Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who joined Mr Johnson on a visit to the wind farm, has previously insisted he was not involved in the decision to allow the fossil fuel extraction.

The UK government’s Oil and Gas Authority and Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment & Decommissioning will make the final decision unless ministers intervene.

In addition to the 80,000-strong petition, an open letter signed by 77 organisations has also been sent to Mr Johnson, similarly calling on him to reject the Cambo proposal. Signatories include Save the Children, RSPB, Oxfam, 350, Friends of the Earth, Green Alliance, Avaaz and Uplift.

The letter says: “As the host of COP26, it is vital for the UK’s international leadership credentials on climate change for it to walk the walk on all aspects of domestic energy policy.

“The government has succeeded in mobilising the G7 behind the 1.5C target, which we strongly support. However, approving the Cambo Field will threaten this progress and stall our efforts at climate diplomacy at the exact moment we need them to accelerate.”

It continues: “It will be hard to avoid the irony of world leaders meeting in Glasgow to discuss how to achieve a 1.5-degree world, while the UK government contemplates a new oil field just over 300 miles to the north.”

Caroline Rance, from Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “If the Oil and Gas Authority is going rogue and just nodding these massive projects through, then the Prime Minister has to personally get a grip on energy policy and put a stop to these developments.

“The government should be supporting and retraining oil and gas workers to transition to jobs in sectors such as renewable energy or decommissioning oil platforms.

“A managed phase-out away from oil and gas is necessary to create the long-term protection for people who currently work in this industry, their communities and the climate.”

The Scottish Greens have said the UK government will be an “embarrassment” it it allows drilling to begin ahead of the climate summit. It is believed the issue is a sticking point in the party's negotiations with the SNP over entering a co-operation agreement as junior government partners. The SNP has shied away from saying Cambo should not go ahead.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are wholly committed to becoming a net zero economy by 2045 and, whilst this is ultimately a reserved area, any Scottish Government support for oil and gas businesses operating in the North Sea is conditional upon them contributing to a sustainable and inclusive energy transition, and ensuring a secure energy supply.

“The oil and gas sector can play a positive role in Scotland’s energy transition, helping to design the diverse energy system we need for the future.

"The knowledge and experience of the oil and gas sector and its supply chain will also be important for developing and investing in essential low carbon technologies, such as carbon capture utilisation and storage – a technology that is seen by experts such as the UK Climate Change Committee and International Energy Agency as being vital to achieving Scottish, UK and international climate emissions targets.”

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