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New oil and gas licences will do “little for energy security and nothing to lower bills”

Energy and environment experts respond to the government’s net zero interventions in the King’s Speech.

By Megan Kenyon

In the first King’s Speech for 70 years, the government took the opportunity to reassert its commitment to taking action on climate change and improving the UK’s energy security. Included was the pledge for a bill in the next parliamentary session to create an annual system for awarding new oil and gas licences. This follows a roll-back on the UK’s net zero agenda by the Prime Minister in September, and comes three weeks ahead of Cop28. Spotlight asked several people in the energy and environment sector for their thoughts on today’s announcements.

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton and Hove and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on climate

When people are crying out for a serious legislative agenda – to reduce the cost of living, tackle the climate emergency, and guarantee warm and secure homes – this King’s Speech is simply government by gimmick. Oil and gas licensing rounds are often annual anyway.

This cynical game-playing won’t improve our energy security or cut energy bills, as [the Prime Minister’s] own Energy Secretary accidentally admitted yesterday – but they will wreck our climate and lead to this government handing over billions in tax breaks to already mega-rich fossil fuel giants. Rishi Sunak has no intention to govern the country. His zombie government deserves to be buried – only a general election now will end this damage once and for all.

Sam Alvis, director of energy and environment, Public First

Both the government and Labour are promising an energy policy to make the UK more independent from global challenges. Despite promising the same thing, there is now a real dividing line in how to achieve it. Rishi Sunak has used the King’s Speech to promise more oil and gas licensing rounds. This is at best a stopgap. Oil and gas are shippable products sold on a global market. An energy strategy would and should prioritise what will be sold and consumed in the UK. Our energy independence will come from the wind and sun, not crossing our fingers and hoping any extra gas will come our way. 

Paul McNamee, director, Labour Climate and Environment Forum

We know Sunak doesn’t believe in his policies, but the fact that he believes the political calculation pushed in the King’s Speech will have corks popping in Labour HQ.

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Doubling down on anti-green policies is a sign of his own weakness: pandering to his own backbenchers despite the polls conclusively showing that the public and businesses back a Green Prosperity Plan. The fact is that British people understand that reliance on fossil fuels undermines our energy security – seemingly more than the Prime Minister does.

Maya Singer Hobbs, senior research fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research

Addressing climate change is the challenge of the 21st century. While the EU and the US have recognised it as an opportunity for growth and jobs, the UK government is undermining the international consensus and squandering its opportunity.

Rather than providing the public, businesses and investors with certainty in a green future or addressing the double crises of climate change and the cost of living, this government is choosing to award oil and gas licences to multinational companies who regularly pay less tax than they receive in tax breaks. These licences will do nothing to address the energy crisis and will have a minimal impact on energy security.

Christopher Hammond, chief executive, UK100

People want to see pounds off their bills, not political posturing. With energy costs at least double what they were two years ago, we would have hoped to see the King’s Speech prioritise more support for local leaders to deliver the kind of insulation programmes that can cut bills for millions, over measures designed to bolster oil and gas company billions.

Heather Plumpton, senior policy analyst, Green Alliance

The average UK energy bill is twice what it was two years ago, and as the Energy Security Secretary admits, these announcements won’t do anything to help. Instead, more North Sea drilling is likely to pump money to fossil fuel companies: the owners of the recently approved Rosebank field in effect get roughly £3bn to develop it, and Equinor made a record £62bn in profits in 2022. To drive down bills, we don’t need new legislation for political points: we need action on existing plans to shift to abundant and cheap renewable energy, and to insulate our homes.

Simon Francis, coordinator, End Fuel Poverty Coalition

The government should stop playing politics with people’s warmth and energy bills. Instead, ministers should be focused on policies that bring down energy bills, giving us a secure, affordable power supply. Millions of households in this country can’t afford to heat their homes, which is why we at End Fuel Poverty Coalition have called for an emergency energy tariff that would reduce bills by £87 a month for the most vulnerable.

After 13 years of new oil and gas licensing, all we’ve seen produced is a grand total of 16 days’ worth of extra gas. More licences will do precious little for energy security and absolutely nothing to help lower energy bills.

Beverley Cornaby, director, UK Corporate Leaders Group at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Any approach to the long-term future of this country cannot afford to ignore the worsening climate crisis and our legal commitment to reach net zero by 2050, nor the huge economic opportunity the green transition presents. The King’s Speech was an opportunity to provide the leadership and clarity that UK businesses have consistently called for to help them deliver on their net zero ambitions and secure the investment this requires.

Instead of doing what’s needed to set UK climate and energy policy on the right path for the long term, the speech focused on a new system for continued fossil fuel extraction. However, the focus needs to shift from these sectors that can only play a diminishing role in our energy security, and the government should now urgently be looking to develop actions to support the green industries that will underpin the economy of the 21st century.

Councillor John Merry, chair of the Key Cities Network and deputy mayor of Salford

The plans set out in today’s King’s Speech represent a missed opportunity for the government to address the dire financial situation facing many local councils up and down the country. Properly funded local services are at the heart of any prosperous society, but crucially, local authorities need to also have the autonomy to manage and deliver their own resources.

As we now look ahead to the Autumn Statement we urge the Prime Minister and Chancellor to push ahead with much-needed reforms to local government financing – including the devolution of funds and powers – as well as housing, transport and energy, to enable councils to better serve their local communities and businesses.

[See also: The Covid inquiry has laid bare the government’s dereliction of duty]

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