UK to Grant Hundreds of New Oil and Gas Licenses, Ignoring Calls From Environmentalists

LONDON (AP) -- Britain said on Monday it will grant hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea in a bid for energy independence, ignoring calls from environmental campaigners and the United Nations to stop the development of new fossil fuel projects.

The plans announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak include a pledge to invest 20 billion pounds ($26 billion) in carbon capture and storage projects as Sunak maintained the government's commitment to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050.

Sunak, who is traveling to Scotland to formally unveil the package, said Britain will still need fossil fuels even after the country reaches its net zero target. He said it is better to produce oil and natural gas at home rather than rely on foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine sent global energy prices soaring around the globe.

"We have all witnessed how Putin has manipulated and weaponized energy -- disrupting supply and stalling growth in countries around the world,'' Sunak said in a statement. "Now more than ever, it's vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalize on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy to British homes and businesses.''

The plan comes as Sunak faces pressure to roll back expensive environmental commitments as his Conservative Party scrambles to attract voters amid opinion polls showing that the party is likely headed toward a crushing defeat in the next general election.

But U.N. scientists and environmental campaigners are calling on governments around the world to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels after a summer of record high temperatures, drought and floods linked to man-made climate change. Burning oil and gas to power vehicles, factories and electricity generating stations releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has raised concerns that governments were backtracking on their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions at a time when they should accelerate their efforts.

"The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions, it's fossil fuels -- period," Guterres told reporters last month in New York.

"The solution is clear: The world must phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way -- moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground where they belong -- and massively boosting renewable investment in a just transition."

Britain began pumping oil and gas from the North Sea in the mid-1970s, a major source of jobs and tax revenue, particularly in Scotland. But production has been declining since around 2000, making support for the industry a major political issue.

British authorities have pledged to reduce net carbon emissions by 68% by the end of the decade, on the way to reaching net-zero by 2050. Achieving net-zero means releasing only as much greenhouse gasses as can be pulled out of the atmosphere through natural or technological means.

But the government's climate advisers say the pace of progress is "worryingly slow." In a report last month, an advisory panel that tracks the U.K.'s decarbonization efforts slammed officials for backtracking on commitments and said Britain had "lost its clear global leadership position on climate action."

The Climate Change Committee said backing for a new coal mine and new domestic oil and gas production undermined Britain's "international messaging" on the need to stop developing fossil fuel projects.

The carbon capture and storage projects backed by Sunak aim to remove carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and pump it into old gas fields for permanent storage underground.

Environmental campaigners say the risk of focusing on this technology is that it may distract the government from other programs needed to accelerate the drive to net-zero, and deceive consumers into thinking that continued use of fossil fuels is compatible with such a goal.

"It's a bit difficult to take seriously the idea that this should be prioritized for prime ministerial attention when so much else needs it instead,'' Doug Parr, the chief scientific officer for Greenpeace UK, told the BBC.

Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, said Sunak's cash injection could be "transformative'' in expanding carbon capture and storage, but there is reason to be skeptical about the motives of the energy industry, which has traditionally been more focused on making money for shareholders than pursuing environmental targets.

"Unless the governments make carbon capture and storage profitable, oil companies tend not to be very interested,'' Haszeldine told the BBC. "Their money can talk very loudly, but it doesn't listen very well."

"What governments are often subjected to is intense lobbying by oil and gas companies to continue extracting oil and gas and to go slow on carbon capture and storage," he added.