THE North Sea oil and gas industry is facing a fresh public relations challenge which could increase concern that the complexities of the debate around its future may be drowned out amid the din on social media.

Survey findings published on Tuesday suggested that a majority of people in Scotland thought that North Sea oil and gas activity should be halted.

Some 53 per cent of respondents in Scotland, and 54% across the UK, said the Westminster Government should set an end date for all oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

READ MORE: Majority think North Sea oil and gas production should be halted

The findings may not mean that the majority want an immediate end to oil and gas activity in the UK. They do suggest, however, that the respondents concerned want the Government to make a much more dramatic move than simply banning new developments while allowing existing fields to remain in production until they run dry.

Around two thirds of respondents in Scotland to the same survey think the Government should draw up a plan to wind down production in the North Sea and redirect related spending to ‘green’ industries.

The survey was commissioned by the Uplift initiative, which says its mission is to support and energise the movement for a just and fossil fuel-free UK.

That doesn’t mean its findings can be dismissed as partisan. The press release summarising the results noted the survey was conducted by research firm ICM Unlimited which interviewed 2,312 people online from May 28 to June 1. These included 475 people in Scotland.

The release added: “Data were weighted to be representative of GB adults by age, gender, region and key socio-economic characteristics.”

It was issued weeks after Uplift revealed it was backing an attempt by three campaigners to take the Government to court on the grounds the support it provided for the oil and gas industry through the tax system was unlawful and incompatible with its net zero ambitions.

READ MORE: Environmentalists claim Government support for North Sea oil firms is 'unlawful'

The campaigners include a member of the Scottish National Party’s policy development committee Kairin van Sweeden.

Her involvement highlights the difficult political choices facing the SNP Government at Holyrood. In the referendum held in 2014 the SNP based the economic case for Scotland to be separated from the UK on the assumption that the North Sea would generate billions of tax revenues for years, only to see the industry plunge into a deep slump shortly afterwards.

The SNP will not want to alienate voters in the North East heartlands of the oil industry, but has been courting the Green party, which also favours Scotland leaving the UK.

The Government came under fire from Friends of the Earth Scotland yesterday ahead of a debate at Holyrood on the climate and nature emergencies on the grounds that it continued to support the oil and gas industry.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Climate and Energy Campaigner, Caroline Rance said: “The Scottish Government continues to support the extraction of every last drop of oil and gas possible from the North Sea. This is simply incompatible with the climate crisis and the Scottish Government must prioritise workers and climate over oil company profits.”

As things stand, the Scottish Government does not control the award of exploration licences in the North Sea. However, it could create difficulties by curbing the support provided for the industry under the economic development budget.

READ MORE: Plans to develop billion barrel oil field off Shetland set to be revived 

The fear in industry circles will be that politicians may seek to win points by playing to the gallery.

The power of the environmental movement has been made all too clear to big oil firms in recent weeks.

In America the mighty ExxonMobil suffered a humiliation when the Engine No.1 investment fund managed to get three of its nominees elected to the group’s board. Engine No.1 had called for the giant to reduce its reliance on oil and gas production and to do more to respond to the threat of climate change.

At Royal Dutch Shell’s general meeting in May around 30 per cent of votes cast supported a resolution submitted by the Follow This campaign group calling for the oil giant to set tougher emissions reductions targets.

To make things worse a watchdog then put the onus on oil and gas firms to show that new developments could be compatible with the drive to reduce emissions.

The International Energy Agency said there should be an immediate end to new fossil fuel developments, including those involving oil and gas fields.

But BP boss Bernard Looney last week delivered a spirited defence of the industry that appeared to reflect some frustration regarding the standard of recent debate.

After taking charge in BP in February Mr Looney set the ambition for the company to become a net zero business by 2050. He has insisted oil and gas firms can play a key part in the related transition. This will involve firms producing gas to help reduce global reliance on coal and using their expertise to help decarbonise industries such as aviation and haulage.

HeraldScotland: BP chief executive Bernard Looney Picture: BP BP chief executive Bernard Looney Picture: BP

Last week Mr Looney told a conference organised by North Sea industry body OGUK the world will need oil and gas for decades.

He noted: “There’s a desire for simple answers ... and if you’re a green company, s solar company, wind company, you’re good and if you’re an oil and gas company you’re bad and that’s a real challenge.”

He added: “The point is unless the carbon intensive industries change all the green companies in the world aren’t going to actually solve the problem.

“What the world really needs is the BPs and the Shells to transition; it needs the cement sector to transition, the steel sector to transition.”

BP is investing heavily in the offshore wind sector in countries such as the UK under Mr Looney.

READ MORE: BP makes billion pound bet on windfarms as crude price hits year high

The company has said the North Sea is one of the core oil and gas regions that it will focus on as it looks to generate the profits required to fund investment in areas such as renewables and to increase payouts to investors.

It was notable that at Shell’s AGM around 90 per cent of votes cast supported the company’s energy transition strategy.

However, the company’s chief executive Ben Van Beurden said yesterday it would seek to reduce emissions faster after a Dutch court ruled in May that it should do so.

“We may disagree with this order, but we will continue to embrace the leading role we must play in helping to develop a low-carbon energy system,” said Mr van Beurden on LinkedIn.

BP’s Mr Looney has praised OGUK for winning the support of a wide range of firms for a strategy that is focused on helping the supply chain to overcome the massive challenges posed by the pandemic while using the expertise offered by firms to support the energy transition.

READ MORE: Can renewables jobs make up for Scottish oil industry decline?

OGUK led negotiations that resulted in the Government backing a £16bn North Sea Transition Deal in March, although that involved no new funding commitments.

In response to the survey findings released by Uplift, OGUK chief executive Deirdre Michie said: “Oil and gas companies are leading the way in developing – and funding – cleaner technologies, including wind, solar, hydrogen, carbon capture and more. “

She added: “Stopping domestic production will offshore our emissions and responsibilities, making us reliant on energy from countries whose carbon emissions we cannot control.

“Our sector is key to achieving climate goals, supporting UK jobs, safeguarding industrial communities from Teesside to Shetland, and benefitting the UK economy throughout this journey.”