Photo: Ariana Yekrangi

Is UK’s North Sea Drilling Plan a Sustainable Solution? An Impact Assessment Report

The UK’s North Sea oil strategy grapples with immediate energy benefits versus long-term environmental and economic costs, amid energy security and climate concerns.

Key findings

  • The UK’s proposed drilling plan has minimal immediate impact on energy security, offering only short-term reserves.
  • With sustainable energy advancements, extensive reliance on fossil fuels is becoming obsolete.
  • The plan’s short-term financial benefits are economically short-sighted.
  • Investing in a net-zero economy and green jobs is more beneficial for long-term economic growth and competitiveness.
  • The drilling plan could harm climate commitments and marine biodiversity in the North Sea.
  • A shift to renewable energy and green bond financing is advised, echoing global body recommendations.
  • Public opinion favours sustainable energy and environmental protection over extensive oil drilling.
  • Transitioning to cleaner fuels meets citizen preferences and reduces geopolitical tensions related to oil.

The pursuit of extensive oil drilling initiatives in the North Sea, encompassing the authorisation of over 100 new oil licences, stands as a pivotal juncture in the UK’s energy landscape. Proposed developments in the RoseBank field, the largest untapped oil reserve in the region, have prompted a comprehensive assessment of their potential implications. The overarching goal is to provide a comprehensive, evidence-based evaluation that assists stakeholders, policymakers and the public in understanding the holistic impact of this proposed oil drilling plan.

False promise for UK’s energy security

The proposed licensing would have a minimal impact on the UK’s energy security, supplying only enough gas for a few weeks a year between 2040 and 2050, and around five years of oil demand. In addition, newly issued oil and gas licences take around 28 years to begin producing, so any new oil and gas fields would not have an effect for decades, hence it is in no way an immediate solution to concerns over energy security. Within this time the UK will have more fuel cell electric vehicles, biofuel powered flex fuel vehicles, more overhead electric cable powered vehicles, as well as more electric heat pumps. 

Moreover, there will be a greater emphasis on low carbon energy sources such as offshore wind energy turbines, rooftop solar-wind hybrids, ocean current driven subsea turbines, tidal and wave energy powered turbines and floating solar photovoltaics. These are all methods that could help to lower cradle to grave emissions like green hydrogen, green ammonia, bioethanol and biodiesel. Therefore, the extra fossil fuel would not be needed as the energy status of the UK can be secured by much more sustainable alternatives.

Risking the UK’s economic and environmental future for short-term profits

The plan has been described by GreenPeace Campaigner Phillip Evans as ‘economically illiterate’ for a multitude of reasons. The Office for Budget Responsibility has projected a substantial increase in government revenue receipts from oil and gas (including those from windfall taxes) and they have claimed that the influx in funds could potentially be used to bolster efforts in preparing the UKs infrastructure for a shift towards environmentally sustainable alternatives. However, this is arguably just a short-term fix, which allows the government more time to delay decisive actions towards a sustainable and low carbon future. 

Investments in a net zero economy will generate green jobs in addition to promoting sustainable development and economic growth across the UK. As many countries are implementing Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms to counter carbon intensive imports, the oil and gas produced by the project could be less competitive in the international market with respect to their cleaner counterparts. Exporting surplus clean energy via super grids and clean fuels through sustainable shipping could be a sagacious long-term alternative.

Read more: Unlocking the Infernal Gates: Confronting the Oil Industry’s Greed

Threat to the UK’s environment, climate commitments and marine life

Oxfam Climate Policy advisor Lyndsay Walsh has said Sunak’s plan would cause a ‘wrecking ball’ through current climate commitments. It has been suggested that granting hundreds of new oil licences will simply pour more fuel on to the flames, while doing nothing for energy security, in as much as these fossil fuels will be sold on international markets rather than just reserved for the UK.

Currently, the main source of UK gas imports is by pipeline and this is much cleaner than any UK produced gas. The plan could jeopardise the UK’s climate commitments and its nationally determined contributions at one of the most critical times. Instead, the focus needs to be on transitioning to a low-carbon economy and investing in renewable energy sources: such as offshore wind, floating solar photovoltaics, pump storage plants, biofuels, subsea turbines, green hydrogen and light blue hydrogen. These projects could be financed using sovereign green bonds and are all growing initiatives in the UK which can provide a much more secure and sustainable energy harnessing source in comparison to non-renewable natural gas and oil. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has advised against all new oil and gas exploration, with UCL energy researchers stating that 60% of known oil and gas must remain underground until 2050 to prevent global temperature growth exceeding 1.5° degrees. The emissions emanating from the existing sources need to be put underground using Carbon Capture and Storage Systems to obtain geological net zero. 

Plans made by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) suggest that it is possible for the UK to meet all of its energy needs with low carbon sources by mid-century. There is evidence to support that the UK is far better served by a rapid transition to domestic clean energy sources, particularly renewables, that can reduce emission intensity of the economy.

Furthermore, development of oil and gas in the North Sea is incredibly dangerous for wildlife. 

Harmful Algal blooms are becoming an increasing problem as a result of anthropogenic influence and subsequent eutrophication. Toxic algal blooms are a natural and important part of the ecosystem in the North Sea. However, eutrophication by anthropogenic sources have given rise to the intensity and frequency of algal blooms in its coastal regions. Such an increase in bloom activity can increase the frequency of oxygen depletion events, hinder the penetration of sunlight and hence have serious consequences for fish and their foraging sources in the North Sea. Therefore, further development of oil and gas will exacerbate the development of harmful algal blooms and increase the number of anoxic zones in the North Sea. 

The North Sea is regarded as one of the most biologically productive seas in the world, approximately 230 species of fish live there and many parts are important for spawning. However, it has become heavily industrialised due to the fact that it is bordered by eight nations and the subsequent inter-country trade that occurs, and this poses a major threat for the species living there. 

Oil and gas extraction can increase the water levels and raise the temperatures of the waters of the North Sea as well as increasing the acidification and the probability of tar-ball formation and coral bleaching. In addition, it can release harmful pollutants into the air and discharge dangerous chemicals into the water, ultimately hindering the migratory species that use the North Sea for travelling between their breeding and foraging grounds. For example, whales and other mammals often use noise and echolocation to navigate, and the disruption caused by gas and oil work can disturb this, resulting in them getting lost and stranded. This has led to an increase in beached sperm whales on the coast surrounding the North Sea, and once on a beach the chances of survival are very slim for wildlife such as whales. Excessive ocean noise from oil and gas industries, therefore, can cause injury, confusion or death for keystone species like whales and dolphins causing ecosystem degradation in the North Sea.

Prioritising oil and gas over techno-economically viable and environmentally sustainable renewables is against the advice from the IEA, IREA, UN and UK’s Climate Change Committee. The UK should aim to achieve several critical objectives while maximising its resources. 

This should include the development of artificial coral reefs utilising bio-rock accretion techniques. Additionally, emphasis should be placed on advancing research in synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms capable of capturing carbon dioxide, aiding in contaminant reduction and facilitating bioremediation. Concurrently, the government should launch conservation programmes for keystone species and establish rookeries to safeguard endangered species. 

Moreover, efforts must be directed towards creating ecological corridors to promote ecosystem conservation and restoration. The strong renewable energy and clean fuel potential within the UK is far superior to oil and gas, especially amidst the current climate crisis where temperatures are already 1.2° degree centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

Clashes with public opinion

Modern voters want to protect and not threaten our environment; hence the aforementioned project would not be received well by the public. In contemporary times, citizens want to think globally, but act locally by adopting lifestyles for the environment to reduce their carbon footprints. The history of the oil and gas industry is a history of wars and geopolitical tensions. Transitioning to cleaner fuels can increase our energy security and can obliterate geopolitical conflicts emanating from a rat race for this “black gold”.

Oil and gas extraction could be perceived by the citizens as a project that adversely affects workers, water and wildlife. By allowing the new carbon positive and environmentally unsustainable developments, the UK belies its commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement and severely undermines the previous green work that has been carried out.

In conclusion, the current proposal for extensive oil drilling in the North Sea warrants a re-evaluation of priorities. Embracing a rapid transition towards sustainable, renewable energy sources and adopting environmentally conscious policies not only aligns with global climate goals but also resonates with the growing public demand for responsible environmental stewardship. It is imperative for the UK to rethink its energy strategies, prioritise cleaner alternatives, and uphold its commitment to environmental sustainability outlined in international agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement.


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The Gordian Magazine is a community supported magazine that shares YOUR revolutionary ideas in regards to human rights, animal welfare and environmental protection. Every issue contains global news, opinions and long reads accompanied by striking photography and insightful companion pieces.

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