According to authorities, the move will protect over 200,000 jobs and boost the country’s energy independence at a time of geopolitical instability following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
It’s expected that the first of the new licenses will be issued this fall.
Alongside new drilling for fossil fuels, the government also confirmed the locations of two new “clusters” for carbon capture usage and storage.
These will be located in northeast Scotland and the Humber, in England, and complement two previously-announced CCUS clusters. CCUS has its advocates, but the technology is divisive and has been questioned by environmental organizations.
“Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalise on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy to British homes and businesses,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement.
“Even when we’ve reached net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will come from oil and gas,” he added. “But there are those who would rather that it come from hostile states than from the supplies we have here at home.”
While the government was keen to stress what it viewed as the upsides to its announcements, environmental groups were highly critical of the plans.
“Rishi Sunak’s energy security drive should focus on energy efficiency and the UK’s vast home-grown renewable resources, rather than championing more costly and dirty fossil fuels,” said Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy.
“Climate change is already battering the planet with unprecedented wildfires and heatwaves across the globe,” Childs added. “Granting hundreds of new oil and gas licences will simply pour more fuel on the flames, while doing nothing for energy security as these fossil fuels will be sold on international markets and not reserved for UK use.”
Elsewhere, Greenpeace U.K.’s Philip Evans described relying on fossil fuels as being “terrible for our energy security, the cost of living, and the climate.”
Globally, the U.K.’s plans for new oil and gas licenses would also appear to run counter to comments from the U.N. Secretary General, who has previously slammed new funding for fossil fuel exploration, calling it “delusional.”
The U.K.’s announcement about its plans for North Sea oil and gas comes at a time of renewed discussion about the implementation of green policies, such as London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone.
A key policy of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a high-profile Labour politician, the scheme covers a large chunk of the U.K. capital, charging drivers whose vehicles do not comply with a specific set of emissions standards.
The planned expansion of the ULEZ was seen as being a major reason for Sunak’s Conservatives narrowly holding the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in a recent byelection.
In a sign of how Sunak may be looking to tap into the often polarizing debate surrounding the environment and net-zero, on Sunday he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was “reviewing anti-car schemes across the country.”
Some Conservative MPs have also questioned the government’s plans to stop the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars and vans by 2030, part of a wider goal to require all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions by 2035.
A number of lawmakers within Sunak’s party have suggested pushing back the 2030 deadline, but the prime minister does not appear to be in favor of this.
During an interview with the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, Sunak is reported to have said, “The 2030 target has been our policy for a long time and continues to be. We are not considering a delay to that date.”