Conservative MPs push UK’s controversial oil and gas expansion law past first hurdle

No Conservative MPs voted against new legislation designed to force mandatory annual licensing rounds for expanded North Sea oil and gas extraction, despite last-ditch pleas from climate scientists and activists. However, COP26 President Alok Sharma abstained.

Conservative MPs push UK’s controversial oil and gas expansion law past first hurdle

Coutinho argued that the “net zero leviathan" could crush the UK's brilliant enterprise economy.  

In Parliament on Monday night (22 January), MPs debated the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill for more than four hours before entering votes shortly after 9pm.

The Bill, confirmed in the King’s speech last September, would compel all future Governments to host a licencing round for new North Sea oil and gas exploration and extraction each year.

It has caused fierce debate ever since. Opponents have noted its potential climate impact that could undermine the UK’s delivery of its legally binding emissions goals. Questions have also been raised about whether there will be any significant benefit to the British economy. These objections were on display in protests in Parliament Square this week.

Energy and Net-Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho pushed the Bill forward in Parliament on the grounds of energy security, reduced costs and avoiding the carbon impact of transporting fossil fuels into the UK.

“Our plans can’t be based on ideology, they must be based on common sense,” she stated.

“This is the question at the heart of the Bill; We know that we are going to need oil and gas. Where do we want that to come from? Only an idealogue would argue that we are better off importing dirtier fuels from abroad rather than using what we can reduce at home.”

The BBC has debunked several of the claims made by Coutinho. She asserted that “virtually all” gas extracted in the North Sea “goes straight into the UK gas transmission network”. In fact, oil and gas are internationally traded commodities and around 80% of UK production is exported.

Additionally, Coutinho said that liquified natural gas imports have a carbon footprint four times higher than UK production. This is true, but most of the UK’s imports are not liquified natural gas – they arrive via pipelines from Norway, where production methods are more efficient and lower-carbon.

Coutinho stated that the UK’s advisors at the Climate Change Committee (CCC) believe there will still be a need for North Sea fossil fuel extraction in 2050 – the UK’s net-zero deadline. This same rhetoric was slammed by Committee members as a misinterpretation of its advice when displayed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt earlier this month.

Opposition criticism

Shadow Climate and Net-Zero Secretary Ed Miliband said Conservative Ministers have “thrashed around trying to make a reasonable argument” for the Bill but are failing to be convincing, citing strong concerns voiced by Lord Brown, Lord Stern and Theresa May.

Miliband said: “The legislation we are considering today won’t cut bills. It won’t give us energy security. It drives a coach and horses through our climate commitment. And it learns nothing from the worst cost-of-living crisis in memory, which the British people are still going through. [This is] a cost-of-living crisis caused by a dependence on fossil fuels.”

Labour MPs intended to block the Bill’s passage until significant amendments had been tabled by Party leader Kier Starmer. 211 MPs voted against the Bill but, given that no Conservative MPs rebelled, it passed its second reading comfortably with 293 votes in favour.

Labour has notably pledged to stop hosting new oil and gas licencing rounds if elected. The Party would honour existing agreements but support no further expansion.

While there was no Conservative rebellion in Parliament over the Bill, it has already prompted the resignation of Net-Zero Review author Chris Skidmore as a Conservative MP.

Moreover, former Business and Energy Secretary Alok Sharma abstained from this week’s vote.

Sharma said: “In terms of the substance of the Bill, as it’s currently drafted – and it really does pain me to say this – I think it is somewhat of a distraction. Because I do not think it is necessary. The North Sea Transition Authority can already grant licenses annually or, indeed, when they think it necessary.”

He added, drawing on his international climate diplomacy experience as COP26 President: “Sadly, what this Bill does do – and this is my opinion, and others will have theirs – is reinforce the unfortunate perception about the UK rowing back from climate action as, indeed, we saw last autumn with the chopping and changing of some policies. It does make our international partners question the seriousness with which we take our international commitments.

“I do not believe, and it pains me to say this, that this Bill will advance that [COP28] commitment to transition away from fossil fuels. I also do not believe that those climate-vulnerable nations will think this Bill is consistent with the pledge that we and every other nation present made in Dubai.”

Several other Tory MPs voiced concerns about specific points of the Bill’s design but voted it through in the hopes of tabling amendments in the future, which would place tougher climate stress tests on projects. Included in this cohort were the likes of Vicky Ford and Jerome Mayhew.

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