Rishi Sunak’s government will use next week’s king’s speech to advance expansion of North Sea oil and gas exploration, as well as pro-car policies, in the hope of opening up a clear divide over the green agenda with Labour, the Observer understands.
Energy industry sources and senior figures in Whitehall say they expect ministers to announce legislation to usher in a new annual system for awarding oil and gas licences, despite the UK’s commitments to move away from fossil fuels and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The king’s speech, the final legislative programme before the next general election, is also expected to include measures that will explicitly favour motorists, including making it more difficult for local authorities to introduce 20mph speed limits or supposedly unpopular schemes such as the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), recently expanded in London.
Laws to bring in tougher sentencing for serious crimes including rape, and moves to allow the government to rent prison space abroad to ease the current problems of overcrowding are also expected.
With his party lagging way behind Labour in the polls, Sunak announced a major U-turn on green policy in September, postponing the deadline for selling new petrol and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers, prompting fury from the car and energy industries. He hoped to win over voters worried that green policies would add to the cost of living.
But since relaunching his premiership and axing the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, the Tories have made no progress. In today’s Opinium poll for the Observer, they remain 15 points adrift of Keir Starmer’s party.
Despite this, Whitehall insiders and the energy industry say there are now clear signs that Sunak intends to double down in the hope that he can create “wedge issues” with Labour.
Labour suspects the king’s speech will be packed full of bills that will be there almost entirely for political reasons. One senior opposition figure said: “Many of these are not bills that are even necessary, nor does the government think they will ever come on to the statute book. They will be there because they want to be able to ask us: do you dare oppose this or not?”
Environmental campaigners point out that more oil and gas exploration licences are not only irresponsible, given the climate crisis, but that new laws are not needed to award more licences. This has been shown by the fact that the results of a new round of licences, launched just over a year ago during Liz Truss’s brief stint as PM, are due to be announced imminently.
The government argues that awarding more licences will enhance the UK’s energy security and reduce dependence on higher-emission imports, while protecting more than 200,000 jobs in a vital industry.
But the plans have been cast into doubt by new analysis that shows that 13 years of North Sea licensing under the Tories has led to the discovery of very small amounts of gas, the equivalent of just nine weeks’ worth of typical usage across the country.
New data from Uplift – an NGO that supports the transition from fossil fuel production – shows that hundreds of North Sea licences have been issued in six rounds since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. However, this has led to the discovery of only five new oil and gas fields and enabled a further seven previously discovered fields to be developed.
These 12 new fields contain just nine weeks of gas, but only half have begun producing. To date, just 16 days worth of gas has been produced from them since 2010. And half of this has been produced by the Sillimanite gas field, which is 30%-owned by Russian gas giant Gazprom, and has been exported to the Netherlands.
After five decades of drilling, the North Sea’s dwindling reserves, which are largely (70%) oil, mean significant new discoveries are unlikely.
Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, said: “Over the past 13 years under this government, new licences – hundreds of them – have led to a couple of months’ worth of new gas being discovered, and only just over a fortnight’s worth actually being produced.
“The Conservatives are selling us a pipe dream when they need to be straight with people about how we’re going to power this country. Rather than coming up with a coherent plan for ensuring we have a secure and, crucially, affordable power supply, they’re trying to score political points.
“An estimated 6 million households in this country now can’t afford to heat their homes in winter, and bills are likely to stay high for the rest of the decade. Does this government care, or is it more concerned with playing political games with energy policy?”