THE UK GOVERNMENT HAS OPENED a new licensing round for fossil fuel companies to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea. The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) is inviting applications for licences to explore and potentially develop 898 blocks and part-blocks in the North Sea, which may lead to over 100 licences being awarded.

To encourage production as quickly as possible, the NSTA says it has has identified four priority cluster areas in the Southern North Sea, which have known hydrocarbons, are close to infrastructure and have the potential to be developed quickly – ­and will seek to license these ahead of others. Applicants will be encouraged to bid for these areas so they can go into production as soon as possible.

Responding to the news, Alice Harrison, Fossil Fuel Campaign Leader at Global Witness, said: “The immediate priority for this Government should be supporting UK citizens facing crippling energy bills while also transitioning to renewable energy sources, to protect both our climate and consumers from an energy crisis that’s caused by fossil fuel dependency. Instead, Liz Truss’ government is gifting a new set of licenses to an industry that’s already making obscene profits from the skyrocketing cost of gas, so that it can dig us even deeper into this mess.

“It could not be clearer that this is a government on the side of the likes of UK oil and gas giants BP and Shell. It’s time to break these companies’ stranglehold over our politicians so that decisions can be made in the interest of people and planet, rather than to make rich polluters even richer.”

In the three months between April and June this year, Shell made $11.5 billion (nearly £10 billion) in profit. Shell investors meanwhile received $7.4 billion in the first quarter of 2022 and were expected to receive another $6 billion as part of a share buyback scheme and $1.8 billion in dividends. In August, BP announced profits of nearly $8.5 billion between April and June this year, up from the $6.2 billion recorded in the first three months of 2022.

In June this year, addressing the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said: “The first duty of leadership is to protect people from clear and present dangers.  Now, nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion.  Even in the short term, it doesn’t make political or economic sense.  Yet, we seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat.

“For decades, many in the fossil fuel industry have invested heavily in pseudo-science and public relations – with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.They exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before.  Like tobacco interests, fossil fuel interests and their financial accomplices must not escape responsibility.

“The argument of putting climate action aside to deal with domestic problems also rings hollow.  Had we invested earlier and massively in renewable energy, we would not find ourselves once again at the mercy of unstable fossil fuel markets. So, let’s make sure the war in Ukraine is not used to increase that dependency.

“Today’s most pressing domestic problems – like inflation and gas prices – are themselves climate and fossil fuel problems.  Without bolder climate action, these and other related problems are just the tip of a fast-melting iceberg.”

Global Witness is calling on the UK Government to first and foremost support those struggling to pay their bills, but says it must also immediately invest in clean renewable energy and home insulation, to bring an end to the cycle of soaring energy prices from which fossil fuel dictators and millionaires stand to benefit most.

* Sources: Global Witness, North Sea Transition Authority and United Nations