Claims by Rishi Sunak’s government that home-grown oil and gas is better for the environment than imported fossil fuels has been thrown into doubt amid serious concerns the Prime Minister's key energy strategy will wreck the climate.

The PM used a trip to Scotland last month to announce 100 new oil and gas licences for North Sea developments have been approved.

But his energy blueprint has been roundly criticised by political opponents and allies, as well as from climate campaigners and scientists - while the United Nations and the International Energy Agency have also hit out at more fossil fuel developments being approved if global warming is to be limited below dangerous and irreversible levels.

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A key component of the UK Government’s argument in favour of new North Sea oil and gas developments is a claim that the alternative is to import fuels to Britain at a higher environmental cost.

Speaking at Shell’s headquarters near Aberdeen, Mr Sunak insisted that the UK will continue to need at least 25% of its energy requirements from oil and gas, even once the nation becomes net zero by 2050, adding that doing it in the “best possible way” means “getting it here at home”.

The Prime Minister said that "we should max out the opportunities that we have here in the North Sea", claiming that "it's also good for the climate because the alternative is shipping energy here from halfway around the world with three or four times a carbon emission".

But Mr Sunak was comparing the practice to only the dirtiest form of imports, which campaigners have warned only "make up a fraction of our overall imports". 

Analysis by Uplift has found that UK gas production is twice as polluting as the fuel being imported via pipelines from Norway, which makes up more than half of Britain’s imports and almost as much gas being produced at home.

Read more: Rishi Sunak: 'Max out' North Sea oil and gas to solve climate crisis

In Norway, polluting practices such as flaring and venting have been banned for decades. Despite calls for a similar move in the UK, the routine techniques are still used.

Data shows that UK oil, which makes up the majority of the fuels extracted from the North Sea, is 27% more polluting than typical oil imports.

The UK is in the bottom half of environmental impact for oil producers – ranked 38th out of the 66 nations where data is available.

Statistics from the UK Government’s North Sea Transition Authority shows that the average carbon intensity of UK gas production is “lower than the average carbon intensity of all sources of natural gas imported to the UK, except pipeline imports from Norway”.

But importantly, 34% of UK gas supplies come from Norwegian pipeline imports, with domestic gas sitting at 38%, according to statistics for 2022.

Despite making up roughly the same amount of the UK's gas supply, imports from Norway only contribute to 7% of carbon source emissions, compared to the UK domestic share of 24%.

The Herald: Credit: North Sea Transition AuthorityCredit: North Sea Transition Authority (Image: North Sea Transition Authority)

A report published by Norwegian Petroleum last month stated that "the companies operating on the Norwegian shelf are front runners in the use of solutions to reduce and prevent greenhouse gas emissions".

It added: "Emissions per unit of oil and gas produced are therefore lower compared to similar operations in other petroleum-producing countries."

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) has become an increasingly popular method of importing and exporting the fuel. LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to approximately -160°C, changing its state from gas to liquid, allowing it to be transported by ship, as the volume is around 600 times smaller than the gaseous state.

UK LNG imports hit a record high in 2022, up 74% on the previous year - in part due to excess fuel being sent on to mainland Europe from the UK due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The UK Government has claimed that “domestically produced gas is on average almost four times cleaner than importing gas in LNG form”.

The Herald: Credit: North Sea Transition AuthorityCredit: North Sea Transition Authority (Image: North Sea Transition Authority)

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, said: “The claim that ‘homegrown’ gas is better for the environment than imports is false.

“To make this claim, the Government is comparing UK gas to the dirtiest LNG imports yet these make up a fraction of our overall imports.

“What they conveniently leave out is UK gas is in the bottom half of the global league table for overall cleanliness and it is twice as polluting as gas from Norway which is where we get the vast majority of our imports.

“Moreover, 70% of what’s left in the North Sea is oil, which definitely isn’t cleaner than the global average and the vast majority of which we export anyway. So the Government’s focus on LNG comparisons is a complete distraction.”

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She added: “Ultimately, the Government is wasting its time quibbling over cleanliness of imports since all these comparisons tell us is how polluting the gas was to produce.

“Once it’s burned and in our atmosphere these differences are negligible. There is no such thing as ‘clean’ oil or gas.

“Any new oil and gas projects risk pushing us past the threshold for a habitable planet and becoming the catalyst for more extreme heat, wildfires and storms.

"We need to end our reliance on oil and gas for good and invest instead in cheap clean renewable resources which the UK has in abundance.”

The Herald: New North Sea oil and gas developments have been approvedNew North Sea oil and gas developments have been approved (Image: PA)

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s head of campaigns, Mary Church, said the UK Government analysis on LNG was “pure spin to try to sell more climate-wrecking extraction as lower carbon”.

She added: “The Prime Minister is comparing apples and pears as most of what’s left in the North Sea is heavy oil, that we don’t even use domestically, not gas, so it has to be exported anyway.”

Around 70% of the UK's remaining North Sea reserves are oil rather than gas, contributing little to energy security – with the majority, around 80% surplus to UK requirements and exported overseas.

Andy Samuel, the outgoing chief executive of the North Sea Transition Authority, has admitted that new licences being approved will do little to change the UK’s dependence on imported gas – warning the ramping up of domestic production will likely only make a difference “around the edges”.

He added: “I think it’s unlikely, given it’s a mature basin and the geology is well-known, that we’re suddenly going to have a situation where we are significantly growing production again.”

The UK Government has argued that ramping up domestic production will “reduce reliance on hostile states” and “reduce dependence on higher-emission imports”.

Read more: Revealed: SNP ministers who have met with oil giant behind Rosebank

The latest statistics from the North Sea Transition Authority show that imports from Qatar, the United States and Peru have a significantly higher carbon intensity than the UK and Norway – but only make up around a quarter of the UK’s gas use.

The UK’s domestic oil and gas sector is also off-track in commitments made in partnership with the UK Government over reducing its emissions.

Analysis has claimed that approving the Rosebank oil field would lead to the sector exceeding its emissions targets from 2028 onwards.

The North Sea oil and gas industry has only pledged emissions by 50% by 2050, when the UK has committed to become net zero.

During the pandemic, when production dwindled, so did emissions.

The North Sea Transition Authority estimates that total emissions will have decreased by 14.6% from 2020 to 2021, “resulting in an overall reduction relative to 2018 of 21.5%”.

Analysis by the North Sea Transition Authority shows that “while the observed trends are promising”, data post-Covid will show “more regular and consistent rhythm”, with the challenge being “to sustain these reductions in future years”.

It adds that “the general trend suggests that total emissions in 2022 will increase from their low point last year as existing facilities which were shut down or underwent maintenance during Covid-19 resume normal production”.

Read more: SNP signals 'faster acceleration' away from oil and gas despite boost

The North Sea Transition Authority has warned that the industry’s 2030 emissions reduction target is currently off-track, adding that “further abatement initiatives are required if the NSTD targets are to be achieved”.

It added: “Meeting these targets is the absolute minimum the NSTA expects from industry, which must make a sustained effort in the coming years to surpass them.”

The Scottish Government’s Energy and Wellbeing Economy Secretary, Neil Gray, has labelled the Prime Minister’s decision to “max out” the North Sea as “extreme”.

He added: “We don’t think that maximum and unlimited extraction is compatible with our net zero ambitions.”

The Scottish Government is currently mulling over consultation responses to its draft energy strategy, which proposed accelerating the inevitable decline of the North Sea oil and gas sector and potentially backing a presumption against new fossil fuel developments being approved. 

North Sea licensing is reserved to the UK Government.  

The UK Government has stressed that the process of extraction, combined with the emissions produced by the transportation of imported gas, means considerably higher emissions than when gas is produced in the UK and these processes are not needed.

A spokesperson for the UK Government's Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, said: “The UK is a world leader on net zero, cutting emissions faster than any other G7 country, and last year renewables accounted for over 40% of our electricity, increasing to almost 48% in the first quarter of this year.

“However, even in 2050, when we have reached net zero, it is estimated that the UK may still be using a quarter of the gas we do now.  As well as strengthening the UK’s energy independence, this vital industry is protecting over 200,000 jobs as we grow the UK economy.

“Independent research shows that domestically producing gas is on average almost four times cleaner than importing gas in Liquefied Natural Gas form and we have strict measures in place to ensure emissions from oil and gas production are accounted for in our binding domestic carbon budgets.”

Offshore Energies UK was contacted for comment.