Largest untapped UK oil field approved for drilling to help 'secure energy independence', despite eco-activists' outcry

27 September 2023, 11:54 | Updated: 27 September 2023, 12:03

File photo of North Sea oil rigs
File photo of North Sea oil rigs. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The owners of the largest untapped oilfield in the UK have been given the green light to begin drilling.

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Ministers welcomed the decision to let British business Ithaca Energy and Norwegian state oil company Equinor develop the Rosebank oil field, near the Shetland Islands.

But climate campaigners were outraged, with Green party MP Caroline Lucas saying the decision to approve more drilling for oil was "morally obscene".

Rosebank has up to 350 million barrels of oil. The field could produce 69,000 barrels of oil per day, about 8% of the UK's projected daily output between 2026 and 2030, and could also produce 44 million cubic feet of gas every day, according to Equinor.

Ithaca and Equinor said that Rosebank is expected to start producing oil in 2026-2027. The project will create around 1,600 jobs at its peak during the building phase, with 450 long-term jobs.

Read more: Blocking all new North Sea oil and gas projects is 'absurd' and puts UK at 'behest of Putin' says Energy Secretary

Read more: 'Beyond partisan politics': Both parties must agree on climate change to secure green future, says Gordon Brown

Rosebank has been approved for drilling
Rosebank has been approved for drilling. Picture: Getty

The North Sea Transition Authority, (NSTA) said: "We have today approved the Rosebank Field Development Plan which allows the owners to proceed with their project.

"The FDP is awarded in accordance with our published guidance and taking net zero considerations into account throughout the project's lifecycle."

The government said the deal had been scrutinised by regulators and had undergone a public consultation period.

It said that all new projects, including Rosebank, would be in line with the natural decline of the North Sea basin.

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Rishi Sunak said: "The Climate Change Committee have said you don’t reach Net Zero by wishing it.

As we make the transition to renewables, we will still need oil and gas – it makes sense to use our own supplies such as Rosebank."

"This is the right long-term decision for the UK’s energy security.

Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho said: "We are investing in our world-leading renewable energy but, as the independent Climate Change Committee recognise, we will need oil and gas as part of that mix on the path to net zero and so it makes sense to use our own supplies from North Sea fields such as Rosebank.

"The jobs and billions of pounds this is worth to our economy will enable us to have greater energy independence, making us more secure against tyrants like (Vladimir) Putin.

"We will continue to back the UK's oil and gas industry to underpin our energy security, grow our economy and help us deliver the transition to cheaper, cleaner energy."

Labour said they did not support the decision but would not seek to revoke the licence if elected. The party said earlier this year that it would not award new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences if it gained power.

Protesters earlier this month
Protesters earlier this month. Picture: Alamy

Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds told LBC: "We do not support the Rosebank field, it's not just about climate change, it's really also about the fact we can't gain the energy security we need from being exposed to fossil fuel prices... "

"We will not revoke any licenses given because we know the kind of uncertainty that would cause."

Environmental campaigners hit out at the decision.

Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Philip Evans said: "Rishi Sunak has proven once and for all that he puts the profits of oil companies above everyday people.

"We know that relying on fossil fuels is terrible for our energy security, the cost of living, and the climate. Our sky-high bills and recent extreme weather have shown us that.

"The ugly truth is that Sunak is pandering to vested interests, demonstrating the stranglehold the fossil fuel lobby has on Government decision making. And it's bill payers and the climate that will suffer because of it.

"Why else would he make such a reckless decision?"

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: "Giving the green light to this huge new oil field is morally obscene. This Government must be held accountable for its complicity in this climate crime.

"Amidst a summer of raging wildfires and the hottest July on record, this Government approves the biggest undeveloped oil and gas field in the North Sea - set to produce more than the combined CO2 emissions of all 28 low-income countries in the world.

"Energy security and cheaper bills aren't delivered by allowing highly-subsidised, foreign-owned fossil fuel giants to extract more oil and gas from these islands and sell it overseas to the highest bidder."