UK energy strategy released in full with pledge to give North Sea oil and gas ‘new lease of life’

Boris Johnson talks up hydrogen and nuclear power while setting out plans to expand fossil fuel production

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Thursday 07 April 2022 19:28
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<p>More offshore wind, but government block on onshore development remains in new strategy (Jane Barlow/PA)</p>

More offshore wind, but government block on onshore development remains in new strategy (Jane Barlow/PA)

The UK government has released its new energy security strategy in full, making pledges to invest in hydrogen and nuclear power, and pursue new fossil fuel projects in the North Sea.

The long-awaited policy package sets out how the government aims to cut imports of Russian fossil fuels, make the UK energy supply secure and efficient, and takes into account the legally binding net zero targets.

In a foreword to the document, Boris Johnson acknowledged rising energy costs and the role the war in Ukraine has played in fuel scarcity, stating that the "government is already stepping in to help, with over £9bn of help for families struggling with their bills".

He said his administration is "not going to try and turn back the clock to the days when we choked our streets and our atmosphere with filthy fumes and ever-rising levels of climate-imperilling carbon dioxide".

Instead, he said the UK must "take advantage of Britain’s inexhaustible resources of wind and – yes – sunshine".

"We’re going to produce vastly more hydrogen, which is easy to store, ready to go whenever we need it, and is a low carbon superfuel of the future.

"We’re embracing the safe, clean, affordable new generation of nuclear reactors, taking the UK back to pre-eminence in a field where we once led the world," Mr Johnson said.

But amid the worsening climate crisis, there are already major concerns over the government’s indications it wants to step up fossil fuel production.

This has now been confirmed: "We’re going to make better use of the oil and gas in our own backyard by giving the energy fields of the North Sea a new lease of life," the prime minister said.

The outline of the strategy, released last night, has been strongly criticised by scientists and experts, with particular concern about a lack of action on energy efficiency and insulation, as well as the plans to expand oil and gas drilling.

The full document sets out the government’s position on why it will pursue new North Sea projects: "Even as we reduce imports [of fossil fuels], we will continue to need gas to heat our homes and oil to fill up our tanks for many years to come – so the cleanest and most secure way to do this is to source more of it domestically with a second lease of life for our North Sea. Net zero is a smooth transition, not an immediate extinction, for oil and gas."

However, there is a clear acknowledgEment of the vital role renewable sources of energy are playing in the UK, and how their future expansion will shape the UK’s energy supply and pricing.

The introduction to the strategy says: "The growing proportion of our electricity coming from renewables reduces our exposure to volatile fossil fuel markets. Indeed, without the renewables we are putting on the grid today, and the green levies that support them, energy bills would be higher than they are now."

Despite indications in recent weeks the government could clear the path to allow greater levels of onshore wind – one of the cheapest forms of energy generation – the plan has not relaxed planning permissions put in place by David Cameron’s government in 2014.

The document states: "We will not introduce wholesale changes to current planning regulations for onshore wind but will consult this year on developing local partnerships for a limited number of supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for benefits, including lower energy bills."

Meanwhile, there are no major announcements on solar power - the cheapest method of electricity generation which has ever been available.

"The cost of solar has fallen by around 85 per cent over the past decade," the government said, "and can be installed in just one day on a domestic roof. We expect a five-fold increase in deployment by 2035."

"For ground-mounted solar, we will consult on amending planning rules to strengthen policy in favour of development on non-protected land, while ensuring communities continue to have a say and environmental protections remain in place."

But on nuclear power, the government has major plans.

"Today the UK is making the big call to reverse decades of underinvestment. We will kickstart a nuclear reaction to recover our global leadership in civil nuclear power and drive down costs by building at scale over the next 30 years."

This means new spending on nuclear projects. As well as the £2bn to be spent this parliament on new nuclear projects, the government has said it will launch "the £120m Future Nuclear Enabling Fund" this month, and would also provide "Great British Nuclear with funding to support projects to get investment ready and through the construction phase".

As well as giving scientists cause for concern, the strategy has been met with fierce criticism from politicians and campaigners.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate change and net zero secretary, told The Independent "the government’s energy relaunch is in disarray".

He said: "Boris Johnson has completely caved to his own backbenchers and now, ludicrously, his own energy strategy has failed on the sprint we needed on onshore wind and solar - the cheapest, cleanest forms of homegrown power.

“After 12 years in government, families are paying the price of Conservative failure. This relaunch won’t cut bills, won’t deliver energy independence, and won’t tackle the climate crisis. Labour would deliver a green energy sprint. This government just cannot deliver.”

Greenpeace said the plans would do little to help people’s bills or cut the immediate demand for gas and oil from Russia, which experts have said could be achieved through improving insulation and prioritising heat pumps.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at the organisation, said: “This strategy comprehensively fails to stand up to Putin’s violence, to take the sting out of soaring energy bills, or take control of the spiralling climate crisis."

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