climate change energy

The countries saying no to new oil and gas

Over the last couple of years the campaign group Just Stop Oil have risen to notoriety. Their tactics are controversial and sometimes absurd, but their single demand is hard to argue with: stop all new oil and gas.

If you accept even the basics of climate change, then the most obvious thing to do is stop making it worse. Just Stop Oil don’t demand the closing down of the industry. They’re not calling for all oil and gas industry workers to be sacked and all petrol driven cars crushed. They exist specifically to demand that “the UK Government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects.”

The campaign is necessary because the government have no intention of halting new oil and gas. The Conservatives under David Cameron made it a legal mandate for the UK to ‘maximise’ extraction from the North Sea, and that still stands. “We remain absolutely committed to maximising the vital production of UK oil and gas as the North Sea basin declines,” the government said last week as it announced another round of licensing.

As long as the government remains “absolutely committed” to making climate emissions worse, Just Stop Oil will have a role to play. But today I wanted to highlight the fact that there are alternatives. It is possible for countries to stop licensing new oil and gas. It’s not inevitable, and it remains a political choice.

Several countries have agreed to halting and phasing out fossil fuels, and they have formed the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. “Our joint climate commitments are being undermined by current and planned fossil fuel production,” says the BOGA Declaration. “Continued investment in increasing the production of oil and natural gas encourages the building of infrastructure for supply and consumption, locking-in a high carbon pathway beyond 2050 and thus contributing to dangerous climate change, while at the same time increasing the risk of stranded assets.”

Jointly led by Denmark and Costa Rica, BOGA members include France, Greenland, Ireland, Portugal, Quebec, Tuvalu, Sweden, Wales and Washington State, along with several other associate members.

Cynics will say that these are countries without fossil fuel reserves, and so it’s easy for them to say. That’s true for some of them, such as France and Sweden. It’s certainly not true of everyone on the list. Ireland has a significant undeveloped offshore oil field and investors have voiced their frustration at those resources being left in the ground. Associate member New Zealand began and then halted an emergent oil and gas industry, as I described recently. Both have made a political choice not to invest in new oil and gas.

You’ve also got countries on the list that have ruled out a possible oil industry. Portugal has promising geological conditions for offshore oil and gas, and has essentially chosen not to investigate. There was a lot of buzz around Greenland as a potential oil power a few years ago. After some initial disappointments, it has decided to stop looking. Would it have signed up to halt oil and gas if exploration had been more successful? We’ll never know. We’ll also never know exactly how much oil and gas lies under Greenland, with the government declaring that “the future does not lie in oil. The future belongs to renewable energy, and in that respect we have much more to gain.”

Perhaps most relevant for the UK is Denmark’s presence on the list of countries moving beyond oil and gas. Like Britain, Denmark has declining offshore production, with oil and gas contributing gradually less to the economy. In 2020 they committed to calling the industry to an orderly close, ending all future exploration and cancelling the latest round of permits. Actual production isn’t slated to end until 2050, so it is hardly an abrupt end to oil and gas in Denmark. Nevertheless, “we are now putting a final end to the fossil era,” said the climate minister at the time.

It has higher reserves and therefore more to forego, but this is what the UK could be doing. We don’t have to wind everything down immediately, and there would need to be an orderly transition for the industry and those working in it. But could we at least commit to stop making it worse?


  1. Another really interesting article, thanks. It left me wondering why our government doesn’t commit to ending new fossil fuels. You mention political will. Behind that lack of political will, I suspect, are large amounts of money. It would be really interesting to know how much tax, licence or other revenues the UK government makes from new fossil fuels. And perhaps also other investors that many of us are tied up in, such as pension companies? To be fair, if a significant % of government revenue comes from new fossil fuels then perhaps we also need to show them how that money could be replaced with taxes and revenues that help drive down GHG emissions faster and further?

    1. Absolutely it’s the money! Though the tax take from fossil fuel extraction is pretty low, as it’s so incentivised with tax breaks and grants for exploration and decommissioning. So if there’s money at work, it’s the shareholders, lobbyists, and corporate profits that are the driving force. Pension contributions are also important, as you have noticed, and that’s where us ordinary folk may have money holding us back without realising it. There’s been a small but energetic movement to divest pensions from fossil fuels for that very reason.

      The money from fossil fuels isn’t so vital that we can’t do without it, but it would affect some regions more than others and it should be wound down with care – as the countries mentioned above are doing.

  2. Going beyond oil is going to be an adventure. No one knows what the next step will be or how it will work. Back to farming, herding and fishing? Could very well be.

      1. I see that. I won’t be here past 2050 to see how it works out. People won’t know until about 2070 when the equipment starts breaking down snd needs to be replaced with iron, steel, cement, and plastic. Without fossil fuels those and other materials will be in short supply by then.

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