Why is the UK putting the Cambo oilfield back ‘on life support’?

Jessica Kleczka, Researcher and Writer at Uplift, explains why we must pull the plug on new oil and gas.

Oil platform
Oil platform
Jessica Kleczka

There is no denying that the controversial Cambo oil field was halted through people power. With a lifetime emissions equivalent of eighteen coal-fired power plants, it had been a stain on the Government’s track record as a self-proclaimed climate leader since the day of its conception – but political inertia in the run up to COP26 threatened to make the destructive project a reality. 

With the Prime Minister shying away from taking responsibility for its approval and the companies involved facing public scrutiny over its climate-wrecking impacts, the project finally crumbled under sustained grassroots pressure. In December of last year, Shell pulled out of Cambo, and Siccar Point Energy was forced to pause the project, leaving it in a state of limbo.

Although the field is located 96 miles off the coast of Shetland, its significance is close to home. The window for climate action is closing and there simply cannot be any new fossil fuel developments if we are to keep within the 1.5 degree limit. 

The Stop Cambo campaign was immensely successful in mobilising people around the country and increasing international scrutiny in the fight against new oil and gas in the UK. As both a top emitter, historically, and self-proclaimed climate leader, the UK has a responsibility to be ambitious in the fight against climate change. New oil and gas developments do not fit into that equation.

Cambo’s licence was extended recently, and despite reports that Shell is reconsidering the field due to skyrocketing energy prices, it is still nowhere close to being approved. Putting the project on life support, however, sends the wrong message: Cambo was a huge mistake in 2021, and it would be an even bigger mistake today. 

In the face of accelerating climate change and energy price increases, we must shift to more affordable, less polluting renewables as quickly as possible, rather than locking the country into an expensive energy source for decades longer than is necessary. New oil and gas developments are at risk of becoming stranded assets, according to the most recent IPCC report. This is not what a ‘just transition’ looks like.

The Government has a warped take on energy security

Russia’s war on Ukraine exacerbated already surging energy costs and increased the urgency for a rapid transition from fossil fuels. But while our European neighbours are stepping up efforts in their shift to renewables, the UK risks making a step backwards with its disappointing Energy Security Strategy. In it, the Government announced a new oil and gas licensing round to be undertaken later this year, which will do nothing to lower energy bills – a fact Ministers have conceded.

The energy crisis facing the UK is, primarily, one of affordability. And yet, while oil and gas companies are reporting record quarterly profits, the Government has, so far, refused to impose a windfall tax on these profits. The UK currently has one of the most generous tax systems in the world for oil and gas producers, and a windfall tax could offset a significant proportion of the additional costs households are contending with. But while Westminster continues to debate, those hit hardest by increased energy bills are forced to miss meals and forgo heating their own homes.

When so many are having to decide between heating and eating, the solution is abundantly clear: invest in energy efficiency measures to reduce demand and prioritise the cheapest form of energy, which is currently onshore wind. This would lower bills, alleviate energy poverty for millions of households, and protect us from the escalating effects of climate change. And yet there has been an effective ban on any new onshore wind developments for several years, with many Conservative MPs objecting to their aesthetic. This Nimbyism looks even more ludicrous in light of recent surveys which show that over 80 per cent of Conservative voters support new onshore wind developments. 

New oil and gas won’t end our reliance on Russia or lower energy bills

The Energy Security Strategy failed to provide a coherent roadmap for the very thing it set out to achieve – lowering our reliance on gas and, therefore, Russian imports. The £9.2 billion investment in energy efficiency, promised in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, never materialised. This is scandalous: According to think tank E3G, £6.7 billion in investments could be enough to cut our reliance on Russian gas by 80 per cent this year, and it would pay back within two years.

Instead, there are now plans for new gas fields, such as the Jackdaw project off the coast of Aberdeen. Jackdaw’s gas reserves would satisfy one to two per cent of UK gas demand on average over its short lifetime. It will not stop the UK from needing to import gas, and only distracts from real solutions, such as energy efficiency measures and the acceleration of renewables. It won’t make any difference to energy bills – the price of gas is determined by global markets – but burning Jackdaw's gas reserves would create the equivalent of more than half of Scotland’s annual emissions or Ghana’s entire annual emissions. 

Nearly three-quarters of the planned investment in the North Sea in the next four years, however, is in oil, not gas fields. And the UK exports approximately 80 per cent of its oil in the UK. Meaning Cambo’s oil would likely be exported.

The appropriate response to solving the joint crises of energy price hikes and climate breakdown already exists: the Government must make good on its promises to voters by investing in affordable renewables and home insulation as a matter of urgency, tax the oil and gas companies properly, and stop the expansion of new North Sea oil and gas once and for all.

The time for business as usual has run out, and our leaders must take bold steps towards true energy security to ensure a safe future for people and our planet.