Boris Johnson today signalled he will not block the development of a controversial new oilfield in the North Sea, despite insisting he is seeking an “ambitious” agreement to rein in climate change at a global summit he will host in Glasgow this autumn.
Oil giant Shell and private equity-backed Siccar Point Energy are expected to receive final approval to go into production at the Cambo field shortly before the United Nations Cop26 conference in Glasgow, where almost 200 countries will be asked to sign up to measures to limit global warming to 1.5C.
Friends of the Earth Scotland today handed an 80,000-signature petition to 10 Downing Street warning that development of the field would “run roughshod over the UK’s commitments to meeting its climate targets”.
And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said on Wednesday that the project should not get the go-ahead, calling for a “hard-edged” timetable to end oil and gas extraction.
But asked whether he would stop exploitation of the field, off the coast of Shetland, Mr Johnson said: “This was a contract that was signed in ... 2001 and we can’t just tear up contracts. There’s a process to be gone through.”
Speaking during a visit to a wind farm off Scotland’s northeast coast, the prime minister said there was a need to “transition as fast as we reasonably can” away from oil and gas.
But he said that the move to greener forms of power generation should be “smooth and sensible”.
North Sea oil had been a “huge part of the UK economy for decades now”, the prime minister told reporters. “We recognise that and there has got to be a smooth and sensible transition. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t massive opportunities to increase the use of green technology.”
Friends of the Earth say that developers want to extract 170 million barrels of oil from Cambo in the first phase of operations alone, the emissions from which are equivalent to running a coal power station for 16 years. And the field is expected to operate until 2050 – the point by which the UK government has committed to reaching net-zero emissions.
The license to develop the field was awarded in 2001, but it is awaiting final approval to go into production from regulator the Oil and Gas Authority.
Mr Johnson claimed in a BBC interview on Wednesday not to be aware of the upcoming decision on the Cambo oilfield.
He said that the UK needed to find ways of extracting clean energy from “the wealth of the North Sea”, adding: “We have to recognise the value of hydrocarbons but we have to realise that it is going to change”.
Friends of the Earth Scotland climate and energy campaigner Caroline Rance said: “A licence was granted to explore the Cambo field for oil 20 years ago but there is no contract to drill for oil and gas unless the prime minister and his government grant it.
“Yesterday he didn’t know what the Cambo field was, and today he says there is a contract when there isn’t. All this is revealing is that the prime minister is not taking seriously the urgent need for a transition away from fossil fuels.”
Sir Keir on Wednesday attacked Mr Johnson as being “missing in action” in the lead up to the Cop26 conference, and told journalists there needed to be a firm timetable laid out to end the extraction and exploration of oil and gas in the North Sea.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that the COP26 goal of setting a 1.5C cap on warming would be “tough” to achieve, but insisted that he would not downgrade the target.
“We will not reduce the level of our ambition for Cop, in order to set an ambition that we know we can meet,” said the prime minister.
“I’m going to be as ambitious as possible for Cop26 in Glasgow. I want the world to recognise the extent of the challenge, and I want everybody to try to rise to meet it in the way that I just set out with those ambitions. We must be as ambitious and as tough as possible and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Pressed on whether he would set a deadline for ending fossil fuel extraction, Mr Johnson said that the UK had already transitioned away from coal “thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country”.
The PM said that when he was a child about 70 to 80 per cent of all electricity had been coal-generated – with this falling to 40 per cent by the time he became London mayor.
“Since then, it’s gone right down to 1 per cent, or sometimes less,” the prime minister said.
“We’ve got a fantastic record in the UK of going to renewables. We were the first country to set a target of net zero by 2050. And if you look at Cop, the agenda is very, very clear and it’s incredibly exciting.
“What you’ve got is countries representing 70 per cent of the world’s GDP have now committed to reducing to net zero by 2050. You’ve got countries coming forward with bigger and bigger nationally determined contributions for reducing CO2.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies