King’s Speech: UK Government to double down on oil and gas expansion

The speech began at 11.30am on Tuesday. Image: Parliament Live TV

King Charles confirmed the policy packages this morning (7 November) as he delivered his speech to mark the State Opening of Parliament. These speeches set out the legislative priorities for the Government for the coming year – in this case, the last year before the next general election.

More than 20 bills are on the table for the next period and the King directly mentioned more than a dozen.

There were several key inclusions relating to environmental sustainability, as well as some notable omissions, including no new measures to overhaul the UK’s corporate governance regimes.

The King said his Government’s focus will be on “helping the country to transition to net-zero by 2050 without an undue burden on households”. He touted ambitions to “attract record levels of investment in renewable energy” as part of the nation’s plans for economic growth.

Fossil fuels were a major talking point. The Labour Party has pledged to end new oil and gas licensing rounds if elected but will honour licenses already in train.

The Conservative Party, in contrast, commenced a major North Sea oil and gas licensing round last year and recently set out plans for another this coming season. Last month, 27 new licenses were offered under the former round.

The King’s Speech today confirmed a new policy that will act as a trap for Labour, mandating that the UK Government must host a new licensing round each year. Historically, rounds have been held in most years, so it is clear that the intention of the new bill is to cement Tory support for new extraction and to prevent Labour from delivering on its pledge if elected.

Rounds will go ahead each year so long as the UK remains a net importer of oil and gas and if emissions from UK-based production remain lower than those associated with imports.

Environmental campaigners are, as expected, voicing anger and disappointment. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 1.5C-aligned pathway to a global net-zero energy system by 2050 includes an immediate halt to all upstream oil and gas projects with long lead times.

Questions are also being raised about whether having additional North Sea oil and gas capacity will do anything to boost British energy security and bring down bills, especially after Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho suggested this would not necessarily be the case in a BBC interview.

Oil and gas is traded on the global market to the highest bidders with the most demand and influence.

Moreover, organisations including Carbon Brief, Uplift and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) have highlighted how North Sea oil and gas production is already in terminal decline as stocks begin to dwindle.

The King stated that his Government would “support developing countries with their energy transitions and hold other countries to their environmental commitments”. Questions will undoubtedly be asked about whether this is hypocritical from a pro-oil and gas expansion Government.

‘Pro-motorist’ measures

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak moved in September to postpone the UK’s ban on new petrol and diesel car and van sales from 2030 to 2035. This was part of a broader set of rollbacks on policies intended to support the low-carbon transition.

Motoring has been another space where the Tories have sought to distance themselves from Labour this past year in particular, staunchly opposing the expansion of the London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) spearheaded by the capital’s mayor Sadiq Khan. This won them the Uxbridge by-election in the summer and backbench MPs quickly began conflating local air quality policy with national climate policy.

Building on this, today’s King’s Speech touched on ‘pro-motorist’ policy measures first announced at this autumn’s Conservative Party conference. The Government will seek to limit the ability of councils in England to place 20mph speed limits on main roads and to implement low-traffic neighbourhood and clean air zone schemes.

Spotlight on homes

The Speech would have included new rules for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of rented properties if Sunak did not scrap these changes in September.

Additionally, plans to weaken water pollution rules for housebuilders in England were meant to feature in the Speech but have been shelved after they were defeated in the Lords in September. Moreover, the Guardian has reported that Sunak has been advised not to re-introduce this change given how much Conservative and swing voters care about water pollution.

The Speech has paved the way for the Government to press ahead with phasing out some leaseholds in England and Wales, to help ease maintenance bills and legal fees. It will also be made more challenging to extend existing leases.

Additionally noted was the Renters Reform Bill, which began its journey through Parliament earlier this year and is now being carried over. This is intended to prevent unfair evictions and give renters more information on the conditions of their property and terms of their rental before moving in.

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