Rosebank, a vast oilfield 80 miles off the coast of the Shetland Islands, is set to become a new front in the war between environmental campaigners and the fossil fuels industry ahead of expected government approval in coming weeks.
The £4.5bn project owned by Norwegian state energy company Equinor would see drilling for close to 300mn barrels of oil and gas — making it more than twice the size of the nearby Cambo field, which has been hugely contentious.
Two UK regulators are expected to give it approval in April before a final decision by energy secretary Grant Shapps.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which threw gas markets into chaos — the British government has become more enthusiastic about issuing new North Sea oil licences in order to maintain energy security by boosting domestic supply.
“Unless you can explain how we can transition (to net zero) without oil and gas, we need oil and gas,” Shapps said last week.
If the project does get the go-ahead it will become a lightning rod for the debate between those who want an immediate end to new licences in the North Sea and those who believe domestic oil and gas is needed even as the country shifts towards net zero carbon by 2050.
The British government last year angered the oil industry by introducing a windfall tax, although the “energy profits levy” includes generous investment tax breaks.
Uplift, a campaign group, has estimated that burning the oil and gas from the site would produce more than 200mn tonnes of carbon dioxide — more than the combined annual CO₂ emissions from the world’s 28 lowest-income countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia. “These are the same countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis but are experiencing among the worst impact,” the group said.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s energy shadow secretary, said at an event last week that taxpayers should not be supporting the project given it would do nothing to lower consumer bills.
“It’s equivalent to carbon from running 56 coal-fired power stations for a year in the UK,” he said. “Why is that a good use of taxpayer money? The government might be choosing to ignore the science, but I’m not going to ignore the science.”
The Rosebank site, which lies more than 1km below the surface of the North Sea, was first discovered by Chevron in 2004, but the company declared the project uneconomic. It was taken on by Equinor in 2019.
It still requires approval from the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning and then the North Sea Transition Authority.
Equinor claims the project will create 1,600 jobs at the height of its construction phase. “Across the lifetime of the field, Rosebank will continue to support significant employment with an average of 450 UK-based full-time direct, indirect and induced jobs,” the company says.
The group — which is also building the world’s largest wind farm at Dogger Bank — argues that oil and gas will continue to play a role for decades even as the world moves towards low-carbon energy sources. “As long as oil and gas is needed it’s important that responsible companies in western countries do develop their resources,” Equinor said.
But Philip Evans, UK oil and gas transition campaigner from Greenpeace, said that campaigners would fight the project “at every stage”.
“This is what happens when the government helps out oil companies with cushy tax breaks,” he said. “The climate crisis rages on, triggering a national emergency and causing death and destruction in the Global South. It’s shameful.”