An oil and gas company owned by a major Tory donor, which has been fined for illegal flaring, has been awarded a licence to drill for fossil fuels by the government.
Campaigners have criticised ministers for rewarding “reckless and polluting behaviour”, pointing out that EnQuest was fined £150,000 in 2022 by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) for flaring an excess 262 tonnes of gas on the Magnus field between 30 November and 1 December 2021, despite knowing that it did not have the necessary consent in place.
The campaigners also point out that since 2013, the EnQuest chief executive, Amjad Bseisu, has donated £480,721.40 to the Conservative party in cash and in kind.
The recent round of North Sea licences has been controversial. The government argues that producing more oil there will “bolster energy security, reducing the UK’s reliance on imports from hostile foreign regimes such as Russia”, and that it is part of a “pragmatic” approach to the transition to net zero. The North Sea Transition Authority argues that the licenses “will help to ensure job security and provide benefits to the local and wider economy”.
It said: “The round is a key part of the North Sea Transition Authority’s (NSTA) drive to support the oil and gas industry, which currently contributes around three-quarters of domestic energy needs and, according to official forecasts, will continue to do so even as demand is reduced.”
But the Climate Change Committee and other energy experts have warned that no new oil and gas licences should be given if climate catastrophe is to be averted. The Labour party has pledged that it would not grant any new oil and gas licences if in power.
Flaring is a controversial process as it burns excess fossil fuels, so is unnecessarily polluting. It is a cheap method of disposing of the associated gas that comes from oil production, and is banned by countries including Norway but allowed in certain circumstances by the UK.
The Good Law Project’s legal director, Emma Dearnaley, said: “The government’s backing of a North Sea oil and gas extravaganza to help corporations and a wealthy few make huge profits instead of investing in cheaper and greener energy sources will come at huge cost to our environment and our economy. Do ministers think this a price worth paying just to keep their party donors happy?”
Greenpeace UK’s senior climate campaigner, Philip Evans, said: “You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Tory party might have an agenda when dishing out these new oil and gas licences. And since more oil and gas will only intensify the climate crisis, destroy lives and livelihoods around the world, and won’t even lower bills or make the UK more energy secure, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the government maybe doesn’t have our best interests at heart. But when those who are awarded the licences have a track record of reckless and polluting behaviour like breaching flaring rules all while bankrolling the Conservative government, of course eyebrows are going to be raised.”
There are other methods to deal with excess natural gas, for example by capturing it so it is not wastefully burned, polluting the atmosphere for no reason.
Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “EnQuest and the other companies that have been granted new exploration licences are betting that the world will fail to tackle climate change and that the demand for fossil fuels will stay high.
“Successful global climate policy would mean demand will fall and the international market prices for oil and gas will drop. The relatively high operating costs in the North Sea mean that oil and gas production is unprofitable when market prices are low.
“That is why these operators need British consumers to continue to pay high prices for oil and gas, and why they prefer to vent and flare natural gas rather than make additional investments in the infrastructure to capture it instead. It is the economics of an industry that is awash with customers’ money and finds it difficult to abandon inefficient, wasteful and polluting practices.”
EnQuest and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero have been contacted for comment.