A Government bid to maximise North Sea oil and gas production has cleared its first Commons test, amid Tory criticism and warnings of “sleepless nights” over the proposals.
The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill would require the industry regulator to run annual rounds for new oil and gas licences, subject to stringent new emissions and imports tests.
MPs gave the Bill a second reading by 293 votes to 211, majority 82, although some Conservatives joined those on the opposition benches in voicing concerns.
Campaigners also criticised the measures, with Greenpeace claiming the “planet and everyone on it has lost” as a result of the Bill making progress.
Tory former cabinet minister Sir Alok Sharma, who was president of the Cop26 climate talks, said the Bill would “reinforce the unfortunate perception about the UK rowing back from climate action”.
Sir Alok, who did not vote for the Bill, told the Commons: “We have seen the impacts of the changing climate around us daily, 2023 was the hottest year on record globally, in recent weeks many people have faced flooding again in our country including in my own constituency, we really shouldn’t need anymore wake-up calls to put aside the distractions and act with the urgency the situation demands.”
He also cast doubt on suggestions that extra North Sea fuel production could help to lower consumer energy bills, telling MPs: “I think it’s acknowledged that this Bill would not necessarily lower domestic energy bills in the UK, that price for oil and gas as a commodity is set internationally.
“I think the best way to enhance are energy security and to ultimately bring down bills is for the Government to continue to deliver on its ambitious plans for expanding homegrown clean energy.”
Conservative former minister Vicky Ford, who was also listed as no vote recorded, said: “I suspect for many members of this House, there are times when votes in this place can cause a sleepless night or two. And for me, this vote has caused a number of sleepless nights.
“There’s a dilemma, on one hand the responsibility to care for lives and livelihoods of those people that we represent today. On the other hand, the responsibility to care for those who will come in the future and to leave the planet in a better place for the generations that will come in the times ahead.”
Ms Ford said she hopes the Government will be “open to amendments to this Bill”.
Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, opening the debate, told the Commons: “We are investing in more renewable energy, we are starting a nuclear revival, we will support new technologies like hydrogen, carbon capture and fusion, and this is our plan to have a balanced energy policy, however we need to make sure that the transition works for the British public and the British economy.
“Our plans can’t be based on ideology, they must be based on common sense.”
Labour opposed the Bill, with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband saying: “The legislation we are considering today won’t cut bills, it won’t give us energy security, it drives a coach and horses through our climate commitments, and it learns nothing from the worst cost-of-living crisis in memory – that the British people are still going through, a cost-of-living crisis caused by our dependence on fossil fuels.
“Since its launch two months ago, the case for this Bill has disintegrated upon contact with reality.”
The SNP’s energy spokesman Dave Doogan, reacting to the vote, said in a statement: “This Bill does not lower fuel bills, does not deliver energy security, and does not support a just transition to secure jobs for future generations.
“There is currently a green renewables gold rush with countries across the globe – from the US to the EU – preparing to take full advantage. We cannot be left behind because of Westminster’s incompetence.
“Scotland has the energy, we just need the power.”
Greenpeace UK’s political campaigner Ami McCarth also said: “The Government may have won this vote but the planet and everyone on it has lost as a result.
“Literally no-one benefits from this nonsensical, climate-wrecking Bill except the oil and gas industry and its shareholders.”
Chiara Liguori, Oxfam GB’s senior climate justice policy adviser, said: “Tonight’s vote is yet another example of the UK’s dangerously hypocritical climate policy.”
Earlier this year, Chris Skidmore resigned as Conservative MP for Kingswood after expressing worries about the impact of the Bill.
The measures will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.