Rishi Sunak has said it would be “economically illiterate” not to invest in UK oil and gas because the country will need fossil fuels for “the next few decades” despite the drive towards net zero.
With a decision expected imminently on whether to allow drilling at the Rosebank field off Shetland, the Prime Minister told MPs it makes “absolutely no sense” to become dependent on overseas resources for the nation’s energy supply.
Rosebank is one of the largest such oil and gas fields in the North Atlantic, capable of producing up to 500 million barrels of oil. Norwegian state-owned energy firm Equinor owns the licence for the field and is awaiting a final decision on whether extraction will go ahead.
The International Energy Agency has said there must be no new investment in oil and gas if the world is to become net zero by 2050, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure are already set to push global temperatures beyond safe limits.
Environmental campaigners gathered outside Equinor's central London headquarters yesterday to protest against the firm’s plans.
Meanwhile, at an energy conference in Glasgow, First Minister Humza Yousaf said there is a “moral imperative” to move away from fossil fuels – but stopped short of calling for a halt to Rosebank.
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Green MP Caroline Lucas asked Mr Sunak: “The Prime Minister has previously declared, and I quote, my daughter is the climate change champion in our house.
“I wonder if he’s asked her what she thinks about Rosebank, the biggest undeveloped oilfield in the North Sea, which would blow climate targets, create more emissions than 28 of world’s poorest countries combined, involve the obscene transfer of £4 billion of taxpayers’ money to a Norwegian energy firm Equinor and do nothing for energy security since the vast majority of the oil will be exported.
“If he gives it the green light, will he be able to look his daughter in the eye and honestly say that he has done everything in his power to give her and all other young people a liveable future?”
Mr Sunak replied: “As the independent committee for climate change has acknowledged, we will need fossil fuels for the next few decades as we transition to a greener future and during that period it makes absolutely no sense to not invest in the resources we have here at home, to import foreign fossil fuels, not create jobs here and import them at twice the carbon emissions as our local resources.
“It is an economically illiterate policy but that’s what you’d expect from the Green Party.”
Greenpeace campaigner Philip Evans said it was Mr Sunak who was economically illiterate for justifying investment in new oil and gas on the basis of energy security.
Mr Evans said: "Doesn't he understand that any oil and gas drilled in the North Sea will be simply sold on the international market, handing more huge profits to energy companies? This will do nothing to lower bills at home.
"The evidence is clear, new drilling would be catastrophic for the climate. We've already got more than enough oil to see us through the transition to net zero.
"The Government must create an energy system fit for the future by removing the planning and grid blocks holding renewables back, and tackle the vast energy waste in our leaky homes.”
Speaking at the All-Energy Conference in Glasgow, Mr Yousaf stressed the need to move away from oil and gas in a way that limits the economic damage caused to the industry and to the north east of Scotland, where it accounts for a significant number of jobs.
Asked about the proposed Rosebank field, he said: "I don’t think that you should extract any oil if there is not a good reason to do so and those are to make sure first and foremost that we are meeting our climate change obligations.
"Secondly in relation to energy security which is not just a domestic matter as we’ve seen in terms of the war against Ukraine it is a global matter, but also how does it help us in relation to that just transition.
"We know we can’t just turn off the taps tomorrow, neither would we want to, because that would have a serious impact on the economy and the jobs of the north east in particular."
He also hinted at a potential shift away from the presumption of no new exploration of oil and gas in the government’s draft energy strategy.