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30th January 2024

Time to turn the oil and gas taps off, not on

The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill sets the UK on a course to increase new oil and gas extraction that places health at risk and does nothing to enable our transition to a cleaner energy future. Elaine Mulcahy writes.

“In the UK, we are blessed with the geological gift that is the North Sea,” Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho told the House of Commons on 22 January 2024, during the debate on the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. [1]

At the same time, across the UK millions of people were dealing with the impact of storm Isha which left thousands without power, caused multiple services to be disrupted, and resulted in fatal accidents. The extreme weather continued into the week as storm Isha was soon followed by storm Jocelyn, the tenth named storm since September 2023, which put a halt to all rail services across Scotland.

Across the world, millions of people are affected by the impacts of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels extracted from the geological gifts we have been blessed with. Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental determinants of health. It increases the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. [2] It has been estimated that 5.3 million excess deaths per year globally are attributable to ambient air pollution from fossil fuels. [3] In the UK, exposure to outdoor air pollution contributes to about 30 000 deaths every year. [2]

In Australia, people were experiencing an extreme heatwave across much of the country, with warnings of temperatures expected to reach mid- to high- 40s in multiple states. Residents have been advised to avoid being outdoors and to avoid travel, to stay hydrated, and look after each other. [4] In the UK, summer temperatures are on average about 1.1C hotter than they were 20 years ago. [5] Between June and August 2022, over 3,000 excess deaths were recorded in England and Wales during five heat periods. [6] Heat related deaths in people over the age of 65 have increased by about 57% since the early 2000s. [5]

There are over 12,000 offshore oil rigs worldwide; 184 of them operate in the North Sea. During the lifetime of these oil and gas platforms, they cause massive damage to deep water organisms. Greenhouse gas emissions produced from the extraction of fossil fuels are making our oceans more acidic and destroying marine life. The ability of our oceans to absorb carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere is being lost. This has severe consequences for human health from the increased risk of water insecurity, infectious diseases, to a reduced capacity to develop new medicines. [7]

The risk to life from the ongoing extraction and burning of fossil fuels cannot be understated. Last year, 300 health editors called on world leaders to recognise the combined threat of climate change and nature loss as a global public health emergency. [8] At COP28, world leaders agreed to keep the overarching aim of the 1.5C global temperature limit within reach, and signalled “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. [9]

Despite the UK being among the nations promising to phase out oil and gas, just one month after COP28, MPs were voting on the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill which legislates for annual applications for new offshore oil and gas licences in the North Sea. The vote passed 293 votes to 211. All Conservative MPs in attendance voted in support of the bill, apart from former COP26 president Alok Sharma who abstained. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and SNP all voted against it. Chris Skidmore, the former Conservative energy minister who signed the UK’s net zero commitment by 2050 into law, resigned saying he could not vote for a bill that promotes the production of new oil and gas. [10]

The government’s primary rationale for the bill is to protect UK energy security, by producing more energy domestically to reduce reliance on imports. However, many experts have pointed out that most of the fuel extracted from the North Sea is sold on the open market and not channelled directly into the UK; 80% of the oil is exported. [11] The 200,000 people employed by the sector, and their job security is also cited as a reason for the bill. As Claire Coutinho says, “We do not live in a world where we can simply switch off oil and gas.” This is true. We can’t simply switch off the taps, but turning more oil and gas taps on is not the solution either. The International Energy Agency has made clear that no new oil and gas projects are needed. [12]

There is no shortage of available capital for the energy transition, but currently the investment is going into oil and gas rather than renewables. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has said that projected investments in new oil and gas fields by 2030 are incompatible with limiting global heating to 1.5C and could instead finance the wind and solar energy ramp-up required to stay within the target. [13]

A just transition requires the oil and gas taps to be turned off one by one as the renewable energy taps are opened. Here, progress has been too slow, and the consequences are devastating.

The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill will now move to the next stage in the House of Commons before progressing to the House of Lords. There will be further opportunities to speak out against it, to continue to present a better, healthier, and more sustainable future in which we are not extracting fossil fuels from the North Sea.

This article was first published in BMJ: https://www.bmj.com/content/384/bmj.q233

References

  1. Parallel Parliament. https://www.parallelparliament.co.uk/mp/claire-coutinho/debate/2024-01-22/commons/commons-chamber/offshore-petroleum-licensing-bill
  2. The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. Policy brief for the UK. 2022. https://s41874.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/Lancet-Countdown-2022-UK-Policy-Brief_EN.pdf
  3. Lelieveld J, Haines A, Burnett R, et al. Air pollution deaths attributable to fossil fuels: observational and modelling study. BMJ 2023;383:e077784. doi:10.1136/bmj-2023-077784
  4. The Guardian. Australia hit by severe heatwave as inland areas areas forecast to suffer hottest days since black summer bushfires. January 2024. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2024/jan/24/australia-hit-by-severe-heatwave-as-inland-areas-forecast-to-suffer-hottest-days-since-black-summer-bushfires
  5. The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. Policy brief for the UK. 2023. https://s41874.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/UK-Lancet-Countdown-policy-brief-2023-v1-1.pdf
  6. Office for National Statistics. People, population and community. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/excessmortalityduringheatperiods/englandandwales1juneto31august2022
  7. Biodiversity, climate change and health. A policy report from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. https://s41874.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/Biodiversity-Report-v6d.pdf
  8. Abbasi K, Ali P, Barbour V, et al. Time to treat the climate & nature crisis as one indivisible global health emergency. Indian J Med Res 2023;158:330-3. doi:10.4103/0971-5916.388235.
  9. United Nations. Climate Change. COP28 Agreement Signals “Beginning of the End” of the Fossil Fuel Era. https://unfccc.int/news/cop28-agreement-signals-beginning-of-the-end-of-the-fossil-fuel-era
  10. Chris Skidmore. https://twitter.com/CSkidmoreUK/status/1743324376479486007/photo/1
  11. Why new North Sea oil and gas production won’t help UK energy security https://upliftuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Uplift-brief_Energy-Security-and-North-Sea-Oil-and-Gas.pdf
  12. International Energy Agency. https://www.iea.org/news/the-path-to-limiting-global-warming-to-1-5-c-has-narrowed-but-clean-energy-growth-is-keeping-it-open
  13. International Institute for International Development. Planned New Oil and Gas Investments, Incompatible with 1.5°C Warming Limit, Could Fully Finance Wind and Solar Scale-Up to Curb Climate Change. October 2022. https://www.iisd.org/articles/press-release/planned-new-oil-and-gas-investments-incompatible-15degc-warming-limit-could#:~:text=October%2024%2C%202022%E2%80%94Projected%20investments,for%20Sustainable%20Development%20(IISD)%20released