Sunak fiddles while Rhodes burns

Pete Cannell and Brian Parkin take a critical look at Sunak’s recent oil and gas announcement. This piece was originally published on the SCOT.E3 blog.

Greenpeace activists climb onto the roof of the Prime Minister’s £2m manor house in Yorkshire, cover in oil-black fabric to protest at his backing for a major expansion of North Sea oil and gas drilling amidst a summer of escalating climate impacts. Photo © Greenpeace

On Monday Rishi Sunak flew to Aberdeenshire by private jet to announce that at least one hundred new North Sea drilling licences will be granted in the autumn.  A policy described by junior energy minister Alex Bowie as “maxing out our oil and gas reserves”.  At the same time Sunak gave the go ahead to the Acorn Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project to be based at St Fergus near Peterhead.  Acorn will be one of four CCS projects in the UK – the other three are in England.

At a time when fires rage across Europe, and North America and floods wreak havoc in China and elsewhere, the new oil and gas licences have received widespread criticism from climate campaigners, climate scientists, the Scottish Government and even some Tory MPs.  Reactions to the CCS announcement are more mixed.  SNP politicians have welcomed the announcement. Carbon Capture is prominent in the Scottish Government’s draft energy plans and Sunak argues that CCS will mean that the net-zero by 2050 target is still in scope.

In our view both strands of Monday’s announcement represent Sunak paying his dues to the big oil and gas companies.  In the rest of this article, we’ll explain why.

For months the Tories have argued that the cost-of-living crisis is the result of a crisis of energy sovereignty caused by the war in Ukraine.  In fact, the price of gas had rocketed upwards before the war. There was no shortage of supply, since most of the gas used in the UK is piped from the North Sea.  Compared with the rest of Europe the UK is unusually reliant on gas for home heating and cooking.  There is a real problem here – the North Sea gas fields are nearing the end of their lifespan.  So given there is an overwhelming need to reduce carbon emissions the obvious answer is to start now, planning for the future by electrifying the domestic heating system and insulating homes alongside a planned phase out of the use of gas.  The Tories are doing none of this.  On paper they still say they want to replace natural gas by hydrogen.  But the weight of evidence that this would phenomenally expensive and a hugely inefficient use of electricity to generate the hydrogen means that they are rapidly backtracking.

So is Sunak’s plan to license more oil and gas fields going to keep people warm? Not at all. First the new fields contain more than 85 percent oil, not gas (see technical note below). That oil would be exported on the world market.  Much of the gas is ‘sour’ – it has a high sulphur content – and is unsuitable for home heating.  So, we have the worst of all possible worlds – continuing use of fossil fuels at large scale when the climate science says that the use must stop and the likelihood of very high fuel bills and insecurity of supply.   Only big oil and their shareholders come well out of this – the rest of us and future generations pay the price.

A close look at Sunak’s plans for carbon capture and storage is equally disturbing. The technology proposed for CCS is untested at scale.  Even if the most optimistic targets for carbon sequestration are met, they represent a tiny fraction of the total carbon emissions from the North Sea. At present the only source of carbon dioxide at St Fergus is the gas stabilising plant.  In the long-term carbon capture may be able to play a role in helping reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – but right now the priority must be to cut emissions rapidly.  The £20 billion allocated by Westminster to the four CCS projects could be spent on expanding the production of renewable energy, home insulation and developing the electricity grid.

The parallels with the Cumbria Coalmine project are powerful. There we have the Tories supporting the exploitation of a fossil fuel, coal, which is not wanted by the steel industry. With the new licences and CCS, we have a plan for energy security and net-zero which delivers neither. Quite simply both represent political statements by the Tory Government that affirm their unswerving commitment to fossil capital.

Technical note

The proposed CCS plants are designed to be emissions source dedicated- i.e. they are intended to sequestrate carbon from say, a power station or chemical plant flue stack – not the ‘general’ atmosphere, and as such they are demonstration installations.

Apart from the Peterhead sour gas power station, the other nearby CO2 source is the St Fergus gas terminal which adds about 3-4 percent carbon to the overall gas/carbon penalty.

Total North Sea reserve gas content is about 27 percent (73 percent oil). The new blocks have a much lower gas composition c.12 percent.

The carbon contents of the different fuels (compared with coal) is:

Coal   97 percent

Oil       89 percent

Gas    35 percent max inc process penalty

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