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Greta Thunberg Roasts UK Government for Wanting to Drill the North Sea

The UK may greenlight a huge new oil project just months before it hosts a "last-chance" global climate summit. Greta isn't having it.

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Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP (Getty Images)

Just a few months before the world is scheduled to gather in Glasgow to hammer out how, exactly, we’re going to meet the Paris Agreement targets, Greta Thunberg is calling out the UK government for approving a major new plan to simply keep on drilling.

On Wednesday, Thunberg shared an article about the UK’s plans to greenlight a project in Britain’s North Sea that would produce 150 million barrels of oil over the next 25 years. “The ‘green industrial revolution’ is proving to be a huge success…” Thunberg wrote, referencing the UK’s plan, released last fall, to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. (Zing, Greta.)


She’s right to be incensed. The Times article Greta shared, published earlier this week, reports that the UK is readying to approve an application for drilling in the Cambo heavy crude oilfield in the North Sea located off the coast of the Shetland Islands. British oil company Siccar Point Energy would be the majority owner in the project; its partner is Shell’s UK arm, which has a 30% stake.

The UK government is trying to help its oil and gas producers figure out how to exist in a climate-constrained world. The government has launched an initiative to help suppliers in the North Sea basin, which is responsible for 3.5% of the UK’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions, cut emissions in half over the next decade by instituting what it’s calling “climate checkpoints” to make sure that new projects are “compatible with Britain’s climate change objectives.” But this new project would exploit a loophole in this effort: Since the wells in the Cambo field were technically licensed for exploration in the early 2000s, they don’t need to go through this checkpoint process for “new” projects.


And the Cambo project would be a pretty big climate setback. According to the proposal, the oilfield would start producing in 2025, right at the halfway point of the UK’s big goal to cut fossil fuel emissions in the North Sea. (Per the proposal, the oilfield would stop operations in 2050, hitting Britain’s deadline for being net carbon neutral right on the nose.) The Times estimates that that production alone would emit roughly 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The UK has been brushing up on its climate bona fides before it hosts the United Nation’s annual climate summit known as COP26 in Glasgow this fall. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made climate change a key point of discussion at the G7 summit earlier this month (though it didn’t lead to much action). He has also aggressively pushed impressive-sounding goals at home despite some internal turmoil in executing those goals. COP26 is set to be a crucial summit being the first held since the global pandemic hit. John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s international climate advisor, called them the “last best chance the world has to come together in order to do the things we need to do to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis” earlier this year.

But despite the UK’s eagerness to seem like a climate leader on the world stage, it seems that the Conservative government may have received some financial encouragement to greenlight the Cambo project and potentially approve future ones. The Guardian and Desmog reported this week that individuals and companies with ties to oil and gas interests in the North Sea have given more than $556,000 to the Conservative party since July 2020, a period that when the government was finalizing its plans to cut emissions from oil production in the region. The UK’s Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng also met multiple times with industry leaders in the last six months of 2020, including hosting a “North Sea Transition Forum” that representatives from Shell attended.

The International Energy Agency said last month that all new oil and gas production needs to stop by next year for the world to have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement goals. But the UK isn’t alone in talking out of both sides of its mouth on fossil fuels. Shell is involved with the project while also insisting it’s “more determined than ever to play its part” in meeting the Paris goals while also fighting a ruling by a Dutch court that it has to cut its emissions 45% by 2030. (It’s messy.) The Biden administration, which maintains that climate change is the “number one threat” facing the world, confirmed last month that it would continue to defend a drilling project in the Arctic that the Trump administration approved. It’s getting a little tiring to watch world leaders and companies up their rhetorical ante on climate, while also continuing to just drill, baby, drill. Greta is, as usual, right to call them out.