Offshore oil rig

Government urged to block Cambo oil field ahead of COP26

Image credit: Dreamstime

Prime minister Boris Johnson has stated that “we can’t just tear up contracts” in the face of mounting pressure from campaigners to block decades of oil extraction off the coast of Scotland. The controversy comes just weeks ahead of the UK hosting the landmark UN COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.

Authorities are weighing up proposals for oil and gas drilling from the Cambo oil field, in the North Atlantic just west of the Shetland Islands. The oil field is owned by Shell and private equity firm Siccar Point Energy.

Licensing for fossil fuel exploration at Cambo was initially approved in 2001. If the project receives the full go-ahead, a further 150-170 million barrels of oil may be extracted from the site - the equivalent of running a coal-fired power station for more than 16 years. The site is expected to operate from 2022 until 2050.

The decision is nominally in the hands of the Oil and Gas Authority and Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning, although government ministers are under pressure to intervene. While the government has recently introduced a climate compatibility test for new oil and gas developments, these will not be applied to fields like Cambo which have already been licensed.

More than 80,000 people signed a petition delivered to the prime minister, demanding a halt to the project in the context of government pledges to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Greenpeace is threatening the government with legal action if the Cambo project is given the green light.

Separately, an open letter signed by 77 organisations has been sent to Johnson, calling on him to block the proposal. Its signatories include Oxfam, Save the Children, the RSPB, 350, Friends of the Earth, the Green Allliance, Avaaz and Uplift.

“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 letter said. “The government has succeeded in mobilising the G7 behind the 1.5°C 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 will be hard to avoid the irony of world leaders meeting in Glasgow to discuss how to achieve a 1.5°C 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 Green party called the approval of the field a "catastrophic" proposal incompatible with current climate targets. US climate envoy John Kerry came close to commenting on domestic affairs in a recent speech when he said that the UK government must “measure the need [for the Cambo Field] very, very carefully”.

Johnson was repeatedly challenged on the Cambo project during his tour of Scotland. During a visit to a 100-turbine offshore wind development in the Moray Firth, he told broadcasters: “This was a contract that was signed in 2001 and we can’t just tear up contracts, there is a process to be gone through.”

Changing the subject, he added: “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.”

Johnson was pressed by reporters on whether he would set a deadline for ending fossil fuel extraction, but declined to do so.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, who joined Johnson on the Scottish visit, has previously tried to distance himself from the Cambo project, stating that he is not involved in the approval process.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has also been touring Scotland ahead of COP26, said the Cambo Field should be blocked and called for a “hard-edged” timetable to phase out oil and gas drilling. Earlier this week, he drew attention to ONS figures which show over 75,000 jobs in green industries appear to have been lost between 2014 and 2019.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “We are wholly committed to becoming a net-zero economy by 2045 and, whilst this is ultimately a reserved area, any 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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