The UK offshore oil and gas industry has reduced production emissions by 24% since 2018, according to a report from the leading industry body, Offshore Energies UK (OEUK).
The report, titled “Emissions Report 2023,” estimates that emissions from production in the UK fell to the equivalent of 14.28 million tonnes of CO2 in 2022 compared with 18.9 million tonnes in 2018.
According to OEUK, most of the reductions have been made through operational improvements, such as process optimisation and the decommissioning of older assets. The sector has also halved flaring and venting and cut methane emissions by 45% compared to 2018. Methane is almost eight times more polluting than CO2.
The OEUK says that the reductions are in line with the sector’s targets under the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD), a partnership between the UK government and the offshore oil and gas sector to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. As part of the deal, the industry has committed to reduce emissions 10% by 2025, 25% by 2027, and 50% by 2030.
The NSTD was agreed in March 2021 and alongside setting ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from upstream oil and gas activities, it also includes investing in new low-carbon technologies and supporting the sector’s supply chain.
“The sector has shown continuous commitment to decarbonisation – achieving a third consecutive year of emissions reductions, halving flaring and venting, and cutting methane emissions,” said OEUK sustainability and policy director Michael Tholen.
“Even though the sector is making big strides, progress is starting to slow. The low-hanging opportunities, like operational improvements and cuts to flaring and venting, having already been achieved.
“Further reductions will now rely on large-scale, capital-intensive projects – so we need to make sure the UK becomes an irresistible place to do business to scale up these solutions.”
The future of fossil fuels
The OEUK report also suggests some likely outcomes based on several scenarios. In one, called the ‘Accelerated Energy Decline,’ no further investment in oil and gas production proceeds and only production that has been sanctioned goes ahead.
In this scenario, the report says that the UK would become even more reliant on imports, global emissions would be higher, and the 2030 target would be at risk. It estimates that the country’s footprint could increase by 50 million tonnes of CO2e by 2050, the equivalent of the entire UK population flying from London to Glasgow almost five times over.
Energy security would be sacrificed and imports equivalent to 80% of oil and gas demand would be needed in the early 2030s. Supply chain capacity would be reduced before wider decarbonisation and renewable energy could be sanctioned, delaying the deployment of renewable energy.
OEUK says that in a best-case scenario, where investment in domestic oil and gas production is sustained to prevent a rapid over-reliance on imports, the UK industry could still provide 50% of the UK’s oil and gas needs by 2030.
In this scenario, the sector would halve its emissions by 2030, meet net zero by 2050, and continue to support UK jobs and the economy while developing solutions like wind, hydrogen, and carbon capture.
“The decarbonisation of our sector, and indeed the entire UK economy, will rely on supportive energy policy across the whole energy landscape, so we welcome any action from government that aims to attract investment and accelerate our drive to net zero,” says Tholen.
The role of fossil fuels in the energy transition
The use of fossil fuels is a thorny topic, and the UK’s continued reliance on the polluting fuel has drawn criticism, including from research firm Global Energy Monitor (GEM) who said increased fossil fuel use is “radically at odds” with the UK’s commitments to fight climate change.
Despite this, in 2022, 40.8% of energy generated in the UK came from fossil fuels, compared with 67.6% in 2012.
Earlier this week, COP28 president and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Sultan Al Jaber, recently acknowledged the thorny issue of fossil fuels in climate diplomacy, but stated, “we cannot unplug the energy system of today before we build the new system of tomorrow.” According to Al Jaber, doing so is “simply not practical or possible.”
In July, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak green-lit 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences. Production at the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field, Rosebank, was approved in September, and may begin in late 2026.
The PM said he was doing this in order to “bolster” energy security, create jobs, as well as build space for carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) projects. But his plans drew an immediate backlash from green groups.
However, International Energy Agency (IEA) boss Fatih Birol has gone on record to say that existing oil fields, gas wells, and coal mines are “more than enough” if the world is serious about its climate goals.
The government has previously said all UK’s electricity is going to come from clean energy sources by 2035, however in light of global economic changes – the future is uncertain.
The UK government has committed to set out the “next stage” of the environmental agenda before COP28 in Dubai later this year.
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