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Explained: Britain’s fossil fuel dilemma

The UK — the host of the COP26 climate summit — is facing renewed heat over its own domestic oil production. But the government says reducing supply while maintaining demand could see the country more reliant on imported fuel, which some say is even more harmful to the environment. This is Britain’s fossil fuel dilemmaIn 2019, the UK legally committed to bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But it has continued to issue licenses for new oil and gas fields in the North Sea, off Scotland. Something some campaigners, academics, and scientists say must stop: “So at the moment, what’s happening is that the government is trying to push through new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, despite the fact that experts are telling them that we can’t approve any new fossil fuel projects if we are to have a hope of tackling the climate crisis.” The government says it needs to keep the nation’s lights on. And argues that new production still has a role to play. Shrinking domestic production paired with rising fuel imports has created new challenges. With the price of UK benchmark wholesale gas rising more than 250%. Mike Tholen works for Oil and Gas UK (OGUK), an industry association: “Well, we can see, even now in the current market dynamic that having assured supplies of oil and gas through the winters and indeed through the seasons to come is important. We can’t just switch off oil and gas and move straight to the new energies, we have to find a way to have a managed transition so that as production and use of oil and gas declines, we have the new energies taking up the slack. The problem what we’re seeing at the minute, is we’re not yet equipped to take up the slack quick enough.” There’s also the issue of imports. Britain once depended on its own fields for oil and gas to fire up its power stations, fuel its cars, and heat its homes, but has been a net energy importer since 2005. Oil and Gas UK said in September that domestic production was cheaper and cleaner than imported gas. Given that shipping fuel creates emissions and because some other producing nations have poor environmental records. But Greenpeace and other activists say these arguments miss the point: Using fossil fuels must stop rather than simply trying to make using them cleaner. They’ve now taken their campaign off the streets and into the courtroom. “Secretary of state, we’re taking him to court because basically, we believe he’s being irrational in the face of the government’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to actually contemplate taking new oil and gas out of the North Sea.” Jeremy Cox is a former oil worker and plaintiff in a case brought by the pressure group Paid to Pollute against the government’s current criteria for awarding North Sea drilling permits. “It’s mainly sorrow and generational guilt, I guess, and it’s not just from having worked in the oil industry, it’s just all of us burning whatever we were burning and leaving lights on all the time and everything else. An entire generation, not really knowing that it was totally screwing up its grandchildren’s future.”