A senior SNP minister has accused the UK Government of “a total lack of focus on delivering a just transition” for energy workers after 24 new North Sea oil and gas exploration licences were awarded.

It is the second tranche of the North Sea Transition Authority’s (NSTA) 33rd licensing round and follows 27 licences offered in the last allocation made in October last year.

British multinationals such as Shell and bp are among the 17 companies which received licences in this latest round, with more expected to be confirmed in the coming months.

The 74 blocks and part-blocks offered this month are all in the Central North Sea, Northern North Sea and West of Shetland areas.

The remaining blocks, the majority in the Southern North Sea and East Irish Sea, will be offered when environmental evaluations have been finalised.

A NSTA spokesperson said: “This latest batch brings total offers so far to 51, with more to come once the appropriate environmental checks are complete.

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“These licences have the potential to make a significant contribution to the UK in energy production and economic benefits, and the NSTA will work alongside the licensees to help bring them into production as quickly as possible.”

But the Scottish Government’s Energy Secretary, Neil Gray, has criticised the move.

The Herald: SNP Energy Secretary Neil GraySNP Energy Secretary Neil Gray (Image: PA)

While acknowledging “the important and ongoing role that North Sea oil and gas plays in our energy system”, Mr Gray stressed that “it is a declining resource and must be managed in a manner that is consistent with responding to the global climate emergency”.

He added: “Our focus is on Scotland’s energy security needs, reducing emissions in line with our climate commitments and delivering affordable energy supplies whilst ensuring a just transition for our oil and gas workforce.

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“In contrast, the UK Government, which has responsibility for offshore oil and gas licensing, has shown a total lack of focus on delivering a just transition for the sector.

“We have consistently called for the UK Government’s climate compatibility checkpoint to be strengthened. Without transparent and robust tests, we do not have a clear evidence base to assess whether new oil and gas licences should be issued on a case-by-case basis.

“The UK Government should focus on its responsibilities and work with the Scottish Government to unlock Scotland’s enormous renewables potential.”

UK Energy Minister Graham Stuart claimed it was “common sense to make the most of our own resources”, adding that “domestically produced gas almost four times cleaner than importing liquefied natural gas from abroad”.

Fossil fuels imported from Norway have a lower carbon footprint than the UK’s oil and gas sector.

Mr Stuart added: “These new licences will strengthen our energy security now and into the future, while also helping boost our economy, by backing an industry that supports 200,000 jobs and is worth £16 billion each year.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s climate campaigner, Alex Lee, said: “This shameful decision to force through another licensing round shows the UK Government has given up any pretence that they have a shred of concern about climate breakdown.

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“As storms rage and temperatures soar, the UK Government is devoting its time and energy towards bolstering the obscene profits of major polluters rather than protecting the public they are meant to serve.”

They added: “Plans for new oil and gas are impeding the transition to renewables, diverting time and resources from where it is needed. All credible climate science says that we must urgently stop burning the oil and gas that is choking our planet.

“Workers need a real transition plan that can help them shift to secure green jobs, not political stunts that aim to further lock households into a fossil fuel system that is failing to provide either security and affordability.”

Offshore Energies UK’s (OEUK) CEO, David Whitehouse, said: “We all recognise that our energy mix must change and our sector is ramping up renewables and accelerating the drive to net zero.

“But this journey will take time. Meanwhile, our North Sea basin is naturally declining. We have over 280 oil and gas fields but by the end of the decade 180 of them will have stopped producing.

“We need the churn of licences for an orderly transition that supports jobs and communities across the country and meets our energy needs.”