The Government has been accused of putting its search for new oil and gas in the North Sea ahead of safeguarding Britain’s wildlife, after it was discovered that one in four exploration licenses recently granted overlapped with protected marine natural areas.
An analysis of the 64 “blocks” in the North Sea where companies last month received authorization to begin exploring new oil and gas resources shows that more than a quarter of the total overlap wholly or partially with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
The official definition of MPAs describes them as sections of the ocean and seafloor designed to “protect rare, threatened and important habitats and species from damage caused by human activities.”
Ministers have prioritized opening new oil and gas projects in the UK, arguing that the persistent need for fossil fuels during the transition to green energy sources justifies maximizing domestic production to control costs and provide energy security. Rishi Sunak’s goal of “maximizing” production came a step closer three weeks ago when the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the industry’s independent regulator, revealed oil and gas licenses for new fields with “ potential to come into production more quickly than others,” suggesting that fossil fuels could start flowing within five years.
But environmental groups argue that opening up these new fields is “morally obscene” and risks inflicting irreparable damage on Britain’s marine ecology.
Data produced by Unearthed, the investigative journalism arm of Greenpeace, revealed that licenses for 17 oil and gas “blocks” or zones granted last month to companies including Anglo-Dutch giant Shell encroach on an MPA – representing 27 per percent of the total.
Of these 17, 11 overlap with a natural zone between the Shetland and Faroe Islands, which the government’s own conservation advisory body said is considered to be used as a migration route for marine mammals, including sperm whales and fin whales.
Conservationists have said that wildlife in North Sea MPAs, from cetaceans such as whales and porpoises to coral beds and fish spawning grounds, would be threatened by mining activity for exploitable fossil fuel deposits and, subsequently, by any possible movement towards production through wells and platforms.
Philip Evans, Greenpeace UK climate campaigner, said I: “The oil and gas licensing decision shows how little the government’s promises of environmental protection are worth when they conflict with the profits of oil companies.”
Activists have stated that seismic exploration activity poses specific threats to wildlife, which they insist can disrupt the feeding patterns of marine mammals and even result in death and “oil releases” from production fields already located in MPAs. . Greenpeace revealed earlier this year that 273 tonnes of oil had been released in this way in MPAs over the last decade.
Hugo Tagholm, director of Oceana UK, a conservation group, said: “Granting new oil and gas licenses in our marine protected areas makes a mockery of our climate commitments, decimates our already suffering ocean life and threatens coastal communities. These new licenses will not improve the UK’s energy security or reduce our energy bills. However, they will destroy our ocean and endanger our future.”
Unearthed’s analysis found that eight of the new exploration blocks lie entirely within a conservation area, with another nine partially overlapping an MPA.
The MPA with the highest number of new licenses, known as the North East Faroe-Shetland Channel, is one of the largest of its kind in Britain and plays an important role in channeling nutrient-carrying currents to the North Sea. According to the Joint Commission for Nature Conservation, a public body that advises the Government, the channel “is considered a corridor for the migration of marine mammals, including fin whales and sperm whales”. It is also an ideal habitat for deep-sea sponges.
Oil industry insiders have stressed that North Sea production is highly regulated and that gas and oil have been successfully extracted from fields within protected areas, in some cases for decades.
In most cases, an exploration license is granted by the NSTA only after an assessment by a separate oversight body, the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for the Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED). Additional licenses and permits must then be obtained for specific activities, including seismic surveys and drilling.
An NSTA spokesperson said: “Vulnerable and protected habitats and species are considered throughout the licensing and authorization process and licenses are only granted when NSTA receives permission from OPRED that its environmental assessment requirements are met. ”.
Shell, which owns eight newly acquired blocks in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, has emphasized that any seismic surveys it undertakes are strictly controlled and timed to avoid environmentally sensitive periods such as migration or breeding seasons. The oil giant said its research was also monitored by independent experts whose role includes ensuring a 500-metre exclusion zone for marine mammals.
A Shell spokesperson said: “Many oil and gas platforms already producing in the North Sea are in Marine Protected Areas. The regulator requires careful environmental assessment before consent is given and, where necessary, measures implemented to protect wildlife.”
Earlier this month, the Government confirmed plans to grant new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea every year. This has angered green campaigners who say it undermines efforts to reach net zero.
The move could put Labor in trouble as Sir Keir Starmer has pledged not to allow new exploration licenses but said existing fields will not be closed.
The Government said its plans for gas production in the North Sea would generate a quarter of the emissions from liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, while supporting new jobs and increasing tax revenue.
A spokesperson for the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero said: “We have a comprehensive legal framework of strict environmental protection measures for all offshore oil and gas activities, and this will continue to apply to new licenses.”