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Climate campaigners say more UK fossil fuel production ‘doesn’t make sense’

The UK will reportedly increase domestic production of fossil fuels to reduce dependence on Russian imports. But climate experts say it can take up to 20 years to produce oil.

Climate campaigners have criticised reported plans to introduce “climate passes” for more UK oil and gas exploration following the Ukraine invasion – and say it would take too long to produce results anyway.

The government has confirmed it will phase out Russian oil and oil imports – with an aim to do so by the end of the year. And this week Boris Johnson said was “looking at the possibility of using more of our own hydrocarbons” – despite former pledges to transition away from fossil fuel use in the UK.

Both the government’s own climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the International Energy Agency have previously said further oil and gas exploration would risk overshooting the global target to stay within 1.5C of warming.

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Claire James, campaigns coordinator at the Campaign Against Climate Change warned “climate change happens according to the laws of physics”, which don’t “give passes” for oil and gas exploration.

And Dustin Benton, policy director at think tank Green Alliance said it was “hard to understand” why more oil and gas exploration is being considered given the benefits of new licences won’t be felt for years.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas prices have rocketed worldwide. The average petrol price now stands at a record high of around 155p per litre while the price of gas has increased 70 per cent since Friday alone.

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European countries have been scrambling to find ways to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas imports in recent weeks.

In the UK, Johnson has suggested that dependence could be reduced by increased production of oil and gas in the North Sea. Currently, the UK imports around 4 per cent of its gas and 8 per cent of its oil from Russia.

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Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday, Johnson insisted that an increase in production of oil and gas domestically would not compromise the UK’s ambitions on climate change.

But climate campaigners disagree. They say the move is incompatible with key climate targets, while the CCC said last month that any increases in domestic production of oil and gas “would have, at most, a marginal effect on the prices faced by UK consumers in future”.

Questioning the point of more oil and gas exploration, Benton said: “The average time across the UK from licensing to first production is about 20 years. This can be sped up somewhat, but it doesn’t really make sense to look at a ‘climate pass’ to deal with what is hopefully a short-term conflict.”

James echoed this sentiment, adding: “Increasing drilling in the North Sea will do little to help as it will mostly yield oil for export. The gas extracted will also be sold wherever the best price is, generating profits for oil companies but not necessarily helping UK energy security,” she said.

Withdrawing from Russian oil should instead be used as an opportunity for the UK to scale up its green ambitions by increasing the speed of home insulation and renewable energy initiatives, campaigners say.

“A proper strategy for renewable energy and home insulation can provide a permanent solution for high energy bills as well as tackling climate change”, James said.

However, Nigel Farage will have something to say about that. He has resurfaced to launch the Britain Means Business campaign with Brexit Party co-founder Richard Tice, calling for a referendum on the government’s pledge to reach net zero by 2050. He described the “net zero delusion” as “a scandal of epic proportions”.

Steve Shaw, founder of renewable energy charity Power for People said that while reliance on oil and gas can’t be switched off “overnight”, speeding up the transition to renewables is not the complex task some perceive it as. 

“Of course it’s not possible to switch off [fossil fuel dependence] overnight, but anyone who says it’s too difficult and it’s going to take decades – that’s nonsense too,” he said. 

“The CCC have laid out very clearly what needs to be done, and they’ve costed it all. The government just needs to walk the talk.”

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