Oil and gas vote is a political boost for PM – but won’t help our energy needs

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The passing of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to its next stage is good news for Rishi Sunak.

MPs gave the bill a second reading by 293 votes to 211 on Monday evening, with the government securing a majority of 82.

The prime minister is a man, remember, who said he wants to “max out” drilling for North Sea oil and gas.

There’s been outcry, of course, from environmentalists, the clean energy industry, his political rivals and even some within his party.

But anger at the bill plays into the hands of Mr Sunak. Because it’s not really about energy security at all, but politics.

Number 10 is banking on using strong rhetoric around the continued need for oil and gas as part of its strategy of being “honest” with the public about the reality of ambitious net zero targets.

A strategy it hopes will win votes among those who’ve read headlines about the costs of a net zero transition and angry about protests by people like Just Stop Oil.

Others, including some Conservatives, argue it’s more cynical than that – an attempt to foment a “culture war” around net zero and the economic and social upheaval it will bring, to win a few much-needed votes in the next election.

Now the government does have a point on the need for locally sourced natural gas.

Not a lot of campaigners like to admit this, but  about 80% of the UK’s energy still comes from fossil fuels  – most of it now gas. Even today, half the gas we use domestically is produced in the North Sea.

But does that mean the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is going to help with that?

In short, no. The additional gas a new licensing regime might yield is trivial.

Yet there’s plenty of anti-net zero sounding rhetoric coming from the government.

Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho told the Commons on Monday evening that those opposing the bill are “putting the interests of extreme climate ideologues over the interests of ordinary workers”.

Yet despite talk of “maxing out” the North Sea, the government says it remains committed to an economy-wide transition to low carbon energy that climate science says is necessary and also inevitable.

All the more reason, argues the government, that it supports the oil and gas industry. The bill, it claims, will protect 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly connected to the offshore fossil fuel industry.

And it is true, many of these jobs are the highly skilled ones that will be needed in the transition to low-carbon energy. Building a floating offshore wind turbine is very similar to building a floating oil platform.

Only oil industry experts – including Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP – have pointed out tweaks to oil licensing won’t help secure those jobs.

The industry is in decline anyway. The only way to protect jobs is with a meaningful shift in support for the low-carbon economy.

Loud shouting

The government is funding a switch to renewables – including offshore in the North Sea. But, in the absence of a coherent energy strategy, the fossil fuel rhetoric really doesn’t help accelerate the clean transition it says it wants.

Companies wanting to invest in in low-carbon alternatives in the UK hardly see themselves as “extreme climate ideologues”.

By shouting louder about the need for locally produced fossil fuels, than the need to support low carbon energy it makes the UK look like a less reliable place to invest.

What of the Opposition? Despite having more of the facts laid out above on its side, Labour is also making political capital by opposing the bill – arguing it’s the only party that can deliver a transition that’s fair for workers.

But it’s going to have problems of its own delivering that if it finds itself in government later this year.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fossil fuel economy from offshore workers to gas and heating engineers will need to “transition”.

But unions, many representing those too close to retirement to retrain to install wind farms or heat pumps, won’t support that enthusiastically.

Either way, playing politics with net zero isn’t going to help. The energy transition in the North Sea is happening anyway – the one all parties want to see is one that preserves as many jobs as will be inevitably lost as the oil and gas reservoirs decline.

That requires a coherent, costed and bold plan to manage what some see as the biggest economic and societal upheaval since the industrial revolution.

Most energy experts agree no political party is presenting us with one of those at the moment.