Having considered the physical science underlying climate change, the report said it was “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. It also warned that: “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”
The UK’s oil and gas industry, which is itself founded on engineering and science, supports the findings and its conclusion that the world must urgently move to a future based around low-carbon technologies. The UK’s continental shelf is rapidly emerging as a global centre for the development of these technologies. Under the North Sea Transition Deal (NTSD), a partnership with the UK government, the industry has committed to cut emissions from oil and gas production, currently totalling about 18.5m tonnes a year, to net zero by 2050.
This could include the electrification of offshore oil and gas installations – so they can be powered by wind turbines – and technologies to end the release of methane (natural gas) which has potent greenhouse effects.
However, emissions from oil and gas production are far smaller than those from their eventual use in Britain’s businesses and homes. That means the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry is already pioneering other low-carbon technologies. These include:
- Carbon capture and storage: bp, Eni, Equinor, National Grid, Shell and Total have formed the Northern Endurance Partnership to capture, transport and store millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions under the UK North Sea.
- Hydrogen generation: In Scotland, Shell, Storegga (Pale Blue Dot) and Harbour Energy are partners in the Acorn project, which will take North Sea natural gas and reform it into clean burning hydrogen. The CO2 emissions created by generating the hydrogen will be buried in rocks under the North Sea.
Decarbonising oil and gas is essential
Such work could be vital in reaching the government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. The UK depends on oil and gas for up to 75% of its total energy needs. This is reducing as renewable technologies expand but oil and gas are likely to be needed for many years. This means decarbonising them is likely to be as important as deploying wind, solar and other renewables. The UK offshore oil and gas industry has committed, via the NTSD, to cutting another 45m tonnes of CO2 from the nation’s emissions using such technologies. So, the industry has committed to cut 60m tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to taking 2.5m cars off the road.
Separately, the UK is already cutting fossil fuel extraction. The nation’s oil and gas production actually peaked in 1999 when our continental shelf produced the equivalent of 1.7bn barrels of oil (boe). By 2020 this had fallen to 587boe.
This trend will continue because, after five decades of activity, the UK continental shelf is in natural decline. Some new oil and gas fields will open but others will close. In 2020, for example, drilling commenced on 71 new wells across the UK continental shelf – while 116 older wells were decommissioned. Such trends are also reflected nationally. The UK’s national emissions have fallen from the equivalent of 708m tonnes of CO2 in 2000 to about 430m tonnes in 2020.
Deirdre Michie, chief executive of OGUK said: “The UK offshore oil and gas sector is changing, as oil and gas companies are increasingly pioneering greener energy. It’s vital we harness the sector’s 50 years of energy expertise to hit the government’s net zero targets. But it’s important to remember that the Climate Change Committee has said we will still need oil and gas as part of a diverse energy mix to 2050 and beyond. The aim is to use new technologies to make these traditional fuels acceptable in our low-carbon future.”