The UK government has admitted that oil from the controversial Rosebank field will be sold on the international market rather than to UK consumers.
Ministers have repeatedly claimed developing the huge oilfield off Shetland will improve UK energy security and help UK consumers, overriding concerns from climate experts and their own advisers.
In a written answer to a parliamentary question, however, the government appears to accept that the private companies extracting the oil will sell the vast majority internationally, saying: “It is not desirable to force private companies to ‘allocate’ oil and gas produced in the North Sea for domestic use”.
The Rosebank field was given the green light in September and has the potential to produce 500m barrels of oil in its lifetime, which, when burned, would emit as much carbon dioxide as running 56 coal-fired power stations for a year.
The project has faced stiff resistance, with hundreds of climate scientists and academics and more than 200 organisations, from the Women’s Institute to Oxfam, joining tens of thousands of people across the UK in opposing it.
Last month two campaign groups, Greenpeace and Uplift, announced separate legal challenges to the proposal, which will be heard early this year.
The Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who submitted the parliamentary question, said: “This government’s answer proves Rosebank is not about supplying the UK with oil and gas, it’s purely another gimmick designed to appeal to a section of the electorate which has no concern for either the future of the planet or their own children. But that is why we need to plan the transition carefully and fairly, not abandon it and add yet more carbon pollution to the atmosphere.”
The government’s attempt to press ahead with the Rosebank field flies in the face of warnings from scientists. Government spokespeople have repeatedly defended the plan, saying it will “help us meet our energy needs, while also supporting UK jobs, generating tax revenues and attracting investment”.
In the king’s speech the government highlighted the apparent importance of new fossil fuel extraction to energy security: “Legislation will be introduced to strengthen the United Kingdom’s energy security and reduce reliance on volatile international energy markets and hostile foreign regimes. This bill will support the future licensing of new oil and gas fields, helping the country to transition to net zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households.”
In September the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said Rosebank would help prevent young people from growing up “dependent on foreign dictators” for energy security.
But in its answer to Russell-Moyle’s question it appears the government is accepting it will have no meaningful impact on the UK’s energy security or soaring household bills. It says: “Due to UK refinery specifications and global market conditions, around 80% of the oil produced in the UK is refined overseas into the products demanded by the UK market. It is not desirable to force private companies to ‘allocate’ oil and gas produced in the North Sea for domestic use.”
Alexander Kirk, of the climate justice group Global Witness, said the government had finally admitted that drilling and exporting more “planet-wrecking, expensive fossil fuels will do nothing for the UK’s energy security”.
“UK oil and gas is owned by the companies that extract it and sell it on global markets. New oilfields like Rosebank will only line the pockets of rich fossil fuel firms, it won’t help the millions of Brits that are struggling to pay their bills.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said that as a “net importer” it makes sense for the UK to use “home-grown British resources to manage the decline in domestic oil and gas production in a way that reduces our vulnerability to hostile states”.
They added: “We will continue to back the UK’s oil and gas industry, which underpins our energy security, supports up to 200,000 jobs, and will provide around £50bn in tax revenue over the next five years – helping fund our transition to net zero.”
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