LONDON: United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunday supported plans for new oil and gas exploration off the country’s coast, saying he would be “pragmatic and proportionate” about reaching net zero.
In an interview with Sunday Telegraph, Sunak said “I think it makes absolutely no sense, as the Labour Party is suggesting, to ban North Sea oil and gas.”
Sunak-led government is expected to approve the development of Rosebank, near Scotland’s Shetland Isles — believed to be the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field — as well as other sites in the nearby North Sea imminently, AFP reported.
The prospect has infuriated environmental campaigners, who argue that stopping all new fossil fuel exploitation is essential if Britain is to decarbonise by mid-century.
They accuse the British leader of lacking conviction on climate policies and playing politics with the issue, as he eyes a general election due next year amid a cost-of-living crisis.
The main opposition Labour party, well ahead in the polls, said earlier this year it will not issue any new North Sea drilling licences if it regains power after more than a decade in opposition.
“That is just going to weaken our energy security and strengthen the hands of dictators like (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin,” he said, arguing it jeopardised 200,000 jobs and threatened Â£80 billion ($103 billion) worth of tax revenue.
Sunak, who became leader last October, said his approach was “to support the UK’s energy industry” and appeared to suggest that not exploiting new UK oil and gas reserves risked “the lights going out” in Britain.
“Everybody sensible recognises that we will need those fossil fuels as part of the transition to net zero,” he argued.
‘Out of touch’
The comments follow the Conservatives defying dismal national polling to retain former prime minister Boris Johnson’s vacated northwest London seat in a July 20 parliamentary by-election.
The narrow victory came amid voter unease at Labour mayor Sadiq Khan expanding a scheme taxing the use of the most polluting vehicles, and appears to have emboldened Tory net zero opponents.
In the Telegraph interview, Sunak insisted he was on the side of motorists and said he had ordered a review of so-called low traffic neighbourhoods, contentious local authority-led tools to limit vehicle use in designated areas by blocking roads.
His government has riled climate campaigners since the surprise by-election win by suggesting some UK environmental targets could be eased, while offering lukewarm support for the country’s ambitious net zero agenda.
Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg on Friday called the UK government “out of touch from reality” after energy minister Grant Shapps said it would look to “max out” North Sea reserves.
Meanwhile, several mainstream pressure groups claiming to represent tens of millions of Britons wrote to Sunak promising to mobilise if net zero policies are watered down.
Sunak, who has been criticised for his frequent use of helicopters and planes to travel around Britain, insisted he wants to “leave the environment and our climate in a better state”.
“But I’m going to do that in a way that is pragmatic and proportionate, and not unnecessarily add costs or hassle to people’s lives,” he added, noting the current grim economic reality many face.