‘People are waking up’: fight widens to stop new North Sea fossil fuel drilling

From trade unions to a bishop, activists are uniting to keep the UK government to its North Sea climate commitments

When the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, tweeted on the eve of the long jubilee weekend that the government was giving the go-ahead to a new oil and gas project in the North Sea, ministers probably hoped the news would slip out without much fuss.

But less than 24 hours later hundreds of protesters, furious that the government was planning to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in the midst of a climate crisis, took to the streets across the UK to voice their objections.

They blocked the entrance of government offices in Edinburgh, throwing red paint and scrawling messages – including “blood on your hands” – on the windows and walls. In London, activists chanted “we will win” as they rallied outside the business secretary’s office in Westminster to demand that the government reverse its decision.

The speed and breadth of the response to the announcement gives a glimpse into one of the fastest growing and most diverse climate movements in the UK: the campaign to halt any expansion of North Sea oil and gas.

Lauren MacDonald, 21, one of the leading figures in the campaign, said that when the announcement was made, an entire network of campaign groups sprang into action.

“It was at 4.45pm just before the start of a bank holiday weekend, and there were a few of us working together and someone said: ‘Oh, have you seen this?’ – and that was it. There was so much action in the group chats and everything just took off … people all over the country started organising.”

The campaign to stop further North Sea oil and gas extraction is made up of scores of different groups, from young climate campaigners to fuel poverty activists, senior figures in the Church of England to medics and lawyers, trade unionists to direct action environmentalists, big NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to small community and neighbourhood organisations.

It has its work cut out. Last month the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the government’s own statutory advisers, voiced fears that ministers may renege on the legally binding commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, noting “major policy failures” and “scant evidence of delivery”.

Tessa Khan, director of the campaign group Uplift, which is one of those involved in the movement to stop new fossil fuel developments in the North Sea, said the fight was urgently needed and “unprecedented [in the UK] in its scale and diversity”. She added that an increasing number of climate justice groups were now linking the climate crisis to wider issues of poverty and social justice.

“If you look at the range of voices and organisations, thinktanks and others that are involved, it is a real testament to the strength of this movement and the determination of those involved,” she said.

Last year activists from Stop Cambo, the forerunner of the current campaign, claimed a major scalp when Shell pulled out of the controversial Cambo oilfield off Shetland. At the time it was seen by some as a likely “death blow” for further oil and gas expansion off the UK coast.

But the war in Ukraine and cost of living crisis have changed the political landscape. Fossil fuel companies backed by the UK government are again pushing ahead with new extraction plans, arguing the move will help with energy security and rising energy bills.

Many experts have dismissed these arguments, saying the UK’s reliance on increasingly expensive fossil fuels is the cause of energy security concerns as well as the cost of living crisis – not to mention climate breakdown.

They also point out that any new fossil fuel production will not come on stream for years – and even then would be sold on to international markets, so would make almost no difference to energy bills in the UK.

Khan said that more and more people were realising the arguments of the fossil fuel companies and the UK government did not stack up. “The industry appears to be on the front foot at the moment compared to last year because of this major geopolitical development but, actually, I think they’re more vulnerable than ever because people are waking up.”

Warnings about the impact on the climate of pushing ahead with more fossil fuel production are getting ever more urgent. A recent scientific study found that far from opening up new fossil fuel production, nearly half of existing sites needed to be shut down early if global heating was to be limited to 1.5C, the internationally agreed goal for avoiding climate catastrophe.

Last year the International Energy Agency, regarded as a conservative institution, called for an end to all new oil, gas and coal developments. And the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has said fossil fuel companies and the banks that financed them “have humanity by the throat”, telling governments there could be no fossil fuel expansion if the world was to avoid disaster.

Khan said it was in this context that the movement to stop the UK government’s expansion plans in the North Sea was gaining momentum.

“The evidence is overwhelming for anybody who considers this … the next couple of years are crucial, and I think we are going to hear more and more voices recognising that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our prioritisation of oil and gas over renewables in this moment.”

Steven Croft, the bishop of Oxford, is one of those disparate voices. Earlier this year he was among more than 500 church leaders who signed a letter to the government calling for no new fossil fuel developments and more support for renewable energy and energy efficiency to tackle the climate and cost of living crises.

Speaking to the Guardian, he said the church had an important role to play in the climate justice movement in bringing people together and offering moral leadership and hope. “We need to face the reality of where we are, but at the same time we need to realise that not all is lost and that together, we can still make a difference.”

Croft said Christians’ faith in God’s purpose, and a recognition of the potential of human beings to work together to solve huge problems, offered solace in the face of the climate crisis. “We’re not defeated and overwhelmed by the problems that we face. But actually, we can rise up together to tackle them. The church can bring the passion and commitment that we need to meet the reality we are facing.”

The Jackdaw development announced by the government is the focus of the campaign at the moment, but the campaigners say the fight is much wider. A study in May found several big UK fossil fuel projects have been approved since Cop26 in November last year, with a further 50 schemes understood to be in preparation.

Globally the picture is even more urgent. A Guardian investigation last month found the world’s biggest fossil fuel firms were quietly planning 195 “carbon bombs” – huge oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits, with catastrophic global impacts.

But the campaigners remain undaunted. In the coming months they are planning to use a wide range of tactics, from direct action to interventions by the church, legal challenges by big NGOs, to mass mobilisations of poverty campaigners and trade unions.

MacDonald, a leader in the Stop Cambo campaign, says they are up for the fight, and is urging everyone to get involved.

“I want to implore everyone to take some kind of action against oil and gas. Whether your motivation is the impact it’s having on poverty levels in this country, or the terrible consequences being felt by people around the world from climate change, you can take action as an individual, as part of your local church, a trade union … it doesn’t matter. The next few years are absolutely crucial and we need everyone.”

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