How can the UK secure affordable energy for everyone?

The war in Ukraine has brought renewed focus on problems with the global energy market. But how can the UK ensure a stable supply of affordable energy and avoid fuelling conflict and climate breakdown across the globe? Climate Campaigner Danny Gross explores the options.
  Published:  10 Mar 2022    |      4 minute read

We’d like to start off by acknowledging that, like many of you, our thoughts are with everyone suffering from the devastating impacts of the unjust Russian invasion of Ukraine – including our colleagues in Ukraine and Russia. We join their call for a peaceful and diplomatic long-term solution.

Russian oil and gas exports have helped fund Putin’s war machine. And the invasion of Ukraine isn’t the only war financed by fossil fuels. Conflicts in many other countries – from Syria to Yemen – have been bankrolled with petrodollars.

In the UK, energy prices are soaring even higher due to the conflict, prompting more discussions about energy security. From both a moral and economic standpoint, it’s essential to have a secure supply of affordable energy while avoiding funding wars abroad.

But increasing UK production of oil and gas isn’t the answer and won’t help ease the current crisis. The UK’s existing North Sea oil and gas fields are operating close to capacity, and it takes several decades for newly discovered fields to start extracting oil or gas. Fracking is a non-starter as it’s deeply unpopular and would be blocked by fierce resistance from local communities.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on fossil fuel companies to give us the energy security we need. Instead, the government can secure affordable energy for all by supporting a massive programme of home insulation and rapidly increasing our production of cheap, home-grown renewable energy. Rather than moving backwards to our fossil-fuelled past, we can move forwards towards a cleaner, energy secure future.

How much oil and gas does the UK and Europe import from Russia?

Russian imports account for 8% of the UK’s oil and less than 4% of its gas. The UK government has announced it will phase out Russian oil (but not gas) by the end of 2022.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused energy prices to soar even higher in the UK, despite importing a relatively small proportion of its oil and gas from Russia. This is because UK oil and gas is bought and sold in European and global markets, and Europe is still highly dependent on gas. In 2021, the European Union imported close to 40% of its total gas consumption from Russia.

Energy security in the UK

Some argue that the UK should increase production of oil and gas to reduce its reliance on Russian imports. However, the reality is that there’s limited opportunity to increase UK oil and gas extraction in the immediate future. 

There are more than 200 oil and gas fields in the North Sea already operating at close to capacity, so there’s limited potential to increase oil and gas production from existing fields. 

So what about opening new oil and gas fields? For starters, it’s an incredibly slow process. As well as the obvious damage it wreaks on the planet, newly discovered fields take 28 years on average to start producing oil and gas. The government is considering handing out a raft of licences for new oil and gas fields, but they would likely only start extracting oil and gas by around 2050, the year the UK has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions.

The term "net zero" refers to net zero carbon emissions.

Getting to net zero means removing as many emissions as we produce, which is vital if we’re to get a grip on climate breakdown. That includes polluting less and holding big fossil fuel companies to account, as well as re-thinking how we use our land and natural resources.

Would increasing UK oil and gas extraction meet our energy needs?

Even if the UK was able to marginally increase oil and gas production, it would not meaningfully improve our energy security.

Oil and gas extracted from UK waters isn’t owned by the UK. Unless the government decides to nationalise North Sea reserves, the oil and gas will continue to belong to companies who sell them on international markets to the highest bidder.

For this reason, the government and the energy industry have admitted that increasing UK gas production won’t have any significant impact on our energy bills:

UK [gas] production wouldn’t really help bills… UK gas is sold in European and global markets. We need to reduce UK dependence on gas.

Emma Pinchbeck, head of Energy UK (the association of British energy companies).

There are several licensed oil and gas fields that are forecast to be approved by the government over the next few years. But these potential new fields mostly contain oil, rather than gas. And the UK exports 80% of its own oil as there’s little demand from British refineries for our domestically produced crude oil.

What about fracking?

Some commentators have even called for the return of fracking – a planet-wrecking process in which water, sand, and chemicals are injected underground at very high pressures to crack open rocks and release the oil or gas trapped inside. However, it’s pure fantasy to think that fracking could lower energy bills or improve energy security in the UK.

In the 7 years before fracking was suspended in 2019, the industry only managed to frack a single well, which was aborted due to earth tremors. That’s because everywhere fracking was proposed, it was fiercely opposed by local communities. And it’s still deeply unpopular – more than twice as many people oppose fracking than support it.

Will renewable energy and insulation give us energy security and lower energy bills?

The quickest way to slash our consumption of gas and lower energy bills is to insulate the UK’s notoriously energy inefficient houses. Insulating a home can reduce gas consumption by 20%, cutting the gas bill from next April by £170. If the UK rapidly installs insulation and electric heat pumps in enough homes by 2027, it would eliminate the need for Russian gas imports.

However, a lack of government support for insulation means the number of homes being installed with cavity wall insulation has plummeted from 600,000 in 2012 to just 39,000 in 2020. If the government is serious about promoting energy security, it must come up with a plan to insulate millions of homes over the next few years. And it must also protect people from soaring energy bills by introducing a windfall tax on oil and gas companies that have profited hugely from the crisis.

Ramping up renewable energy capacity in the UK would also reduce our gas consumption and imports. There are over 600 wind and solar projects in the UK that already have planning permission, so could be built quickly. What’s more, if they all went ahead, they'd save more gas than we currently import from Russia.

What does the public think?

According to polling, 57% of people think that the best way of eliminating UK dependence on Russian gas is to reduce our use of gas altogether and expand our use of renewable energy. Only 29% of people think that the best solution is to increase the UK’s domestic supply of gas through expanded drilling and fracking.

Public opinion is clear. The government must act decisively to reduce our reliance on oil and gas. Our energy security and climate security depend on it.

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