The UK government has been accused of “environmental vandalism” and “betraying” its climate commitments after giving the green light to the development of the largest untapped oilfield in UK waters.

Rosebank oilfield to produce 500m barrels of oil

The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the UK oil and gas regulator, announced on Wednesday that it has approved the field development plan for the Rosebank oilfield, which is located about 130km northwest of the Shetland Islands. The project is led by Norway’s Equinor and Britain’s Ithaca Energy, and is expected to produce about 500m barrels of oil over its lifetime.

UK faces backlash over approval of North Sea oilfield
UK faces backlash over approval of North Sea oilfield

The NSTA said that the approval was granted “in accordance with our published guidance and taking net zero considerations into account throughout the project’s lifecycle”. It also claimed that the project would support thousands of jobs and generate billions of pounds in tax revenues.

However, environmental campaigners and opposition politicians have slammed the decision, saying that it contradicts the UK’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and undermines its credibility as the host of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Green party co-leader: ‘greatest act of environmental vandalism in my lifetime’

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion, called the approval of the Rosebank oilfield “the greatest act of environmental vandalism in my lifetime” and urged the government to revoke it.

She said that the project would emit as much carbon dioxide as running 56 coal-fired power stations for a year, and that it would lock the UK into a “dead-end industry” that would leave workers stranded and the economy lagging.

She also pointed out that the project would threaten the marine wildlife in the area, including deep sea sponge communities, cold-water corals, seabirds and seals.

Lucas was joined by other critics, such as Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, who had previously called on the UK government to halt the development of the Rosebank oilfield. Philip Evans, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, had “proven once and for all that he puts the profits of oil companies above everyday people”.

Energy secretary: ‘we must be pragmatic’

In response to the backlash, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the energy secretary, defended the approval of the Rosebank oilfield, saying that it was “consistent with our net zero ambitions” and that it would help secure the UK’s energy supply.

She said that the UK was “leading by example” on tackling climate change, but that it also had to be “pragmatic” and recognise that oil and gas would still play a role in its energy mix for some time.

She added that the government was committed to supporting a “just transition” for workers and communities affected by the shift to low-carbon energy sources.

However, her arguments were dismissed by Tessa Khan, a climate lawyer and the executive director of Uplift, a campaign group that had coordinated a petition to stop the Rosebank oilfield. Khan said that there were “strong grounds to believe that the way this government has come to this decision is unlawful” and that they would challenge it in court if so.

She said that the government had failed to consider the full environmental and social impacts of the project, and that it had ignored its own legal obligations under domestic and international law.

She also said that approving new fossil fuel projects was not only bad for the climate, but also for the economy, as renewable energy sources were cheaper, cleaner and more reliable.


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