The recent passage of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill for second reading from the House of Commons has sparked debates on whether it is genuinely about ensuring energy security or merely a political manoeuvring.
The bill, which received 293 votes in favour and 211 against, has been touted by the government as crucial for protecting jobs and ensuring the country’s energy needs. The proposed legislation aims to introduce fixed terms for new oil and gas licensing rounds.
However, it has ignited a heated debate over its potential impact on energy security, climate commitments, and the nation’s political landscape. Some critics argue that it is more about political manoeuvring than addressing the challenges of a transitioning energy landscape.
The Bill’s Key Provisions
The primary objective of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is to amend the Petroleum Act 1998, introducing a fixed term for new oil and gas licensing rounds. Currently, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) determines when such rounds are necessary. However, under the proposed legislation, the NSTA will be obligated to conduct annual applications for new oil and gas licences for at least one block of the North Sea.
Two new tests, the “carbon intensity test” and the “net importer test,” are set to replace the existing climate compatibility checkpoint test. The carbon intensity test compares the carbon intensity of domestically produced gas with that of imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). The net importer test evaluates whether the UK is projected to be a net importer of both oil and gas over a 15-year period.
Energy Security as the Primary Motivation
Proponents of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill argue that its passage is crucial for bolstering national energy security. They contend that by encouraging the exploration and extraction of offshore petroleum resources, the country can reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources, thereby insulating itself from geopolitical uncertainties and market fluctuations.
Energy security is a critical concern for any nation, and supporters of the bill emphasise the need to diversify the energy portfolio to ensure a stable and reliable supply. By tapping into offshore petroleum reserves, the country could potentially strengthen its position in the global energy market and secure a more sustainable and resilient energy future.
The Decline of the Fossil Fuel Industry
The fossil fuel industry is undeniably in decline, and protecting jobs requires more than just superficial changes to oil licensing. The government’s commitment to an economy-wide transition to low-carbon energy is commendable, but critics argue that the focus should be on a comprehensive strategy rather than merely supporting the oil and gas industry. The transition is already underway, and the key to preserving jobs lies in embracing the inevitable shift towards cleaner energy sources.
Net Zero Transition and Job Protection
Supporters also highlight the potential economic benefits associated with the offshore petroleum industry. The exploration and extraction of offshore resources could lead to increased investments, job creation, and economic growth. Proponents argue that a thriving petroleum sector could contribute significantly to the national economy, providing revenue for essential public services and infrastructure development.
The government itself has emphasised the need for locally sourced natural gas and asserts that the bill will protect 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly connected to the offshore fossil fuel industry.
However, sceptics argue that the additional gas from the new licensing regime is trivial. Experts, including Lord Browne, former CEO of BP, suggest that tweaks to oil licensing won’t effectively secure jobs in an industry that is already in decline. The real challenge, they argue, lies in a meaningful shift towards supporting the low-carbon economy.
Is the Bill Politically Motivated?
The passing of the bill has highlighted deep-seated divisions within the political landscape. While no Tory MPs voted against the bill, Labour MP Sarah Champion questioned Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho about the resignation of the former energy minister, Chris Skidmore, who cited the promotion of new oil and gas production as the reason for his departure.
Coutinho defended the bill, emphasising the need to reduce emissions and posing a crucial question – if Europe doesn’t obtain oil from the UK, where should it come from? Green MP Caroline Lucas challenged this assertion, pointing out that the UK imports gas from Norway, where production is less polluting than in the UK. The debate also touched on the significance of scope 3 emissions, with Coutinho arguing that Lucas misunderstood the dynamics of the energy market.
Sceptics also argue that the timing of the bill’s passage and the political climate suggest that it may be driven more by political motivations than genuine concerns for energy security. They point to the upcoming elections and the government’s desire to showcase its commitment to economic growth and job creation as possible factors influencing the bill’s advancement.
Additionally, critics question whether the focus on offshore petroleum detracts from broader efforts to transition towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. They argue that increased investment in renewable energy alternatives would align better with global efforts to combat climate change and position the country as a leader in the transition to a low-carbon future.
Further Criticism and Concerns
Shadow climate change and net-zero secretary Ed Miliband criticised the legislation, contending that it would not cut bills or enhance energy security. Miliband argued that the bill contradicts the global commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, as evidenced by the recent COP28 agreement.
Former COP26 president, Alok Sharma, expressed reservations about the bill, describing it as a distraction that may not be necessary. He raised concerns about the two statutory tests, suggesting they may be designed to always approve new oil and gas licences. Sharma emphasised the importance of expanding home-grown clean energy to enhance energy security.
Environmental and Safety Concerns:
However, critics of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill express apprehension about the potential environmental and safety risks associated with offshore drilling. They raise concerns about the impact of oil spills, disturbance to marine ecosystems, and the overall environmental sustainability of relying on fossil fuels. Opponents stress the need for stringent regulations and safeguards to mitigate these risks and prevent environmental disasters.
The differing viewpoints among MPs on the Bill underscore the complexity of balancing economic interests with environmental responsibilities. While the need for a locally sourced natural gas supply is acknowledged, critics argue that the bill’s focus on the declining fossil fuel industry may hinder rather than accelerate the clean energy transition. But the final outcome and potential amendments to the bill will undoubtedly shape the UK’s energy future and its place in the global fight against climate change. Hence, with the energy landscape evolving, a comprehensive and forward-thinking strategy is essential to navigate the challenges posed by the inevitable decline of the fossil fuel era. Ultimately, finding a balanced approach that addresses these concerns will be crucial in shaping the nation’s energy policies for the future.
Found it interesting and would like more in the mail?