Putting the Lid on Fossil Fuels

by Pete Roche, Greenpeace, UK

Island communities across the world are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Yet, unfortunately, many of them, for example Orkney and Shetland, are heavily dependent on the oil industry for their economic well-being. Such island communities need to start planning now for a future without oil, not just because climate change threatens their ecology, but also because a phase out of fossil fuels in the not too distant future is inevitable. Yet plans by the UK Government to promote a new oil rush on Scotland's Atlantic Frontier look set to make these islands even more dependent on oil.

Global average sea level has risen by 10 to 25cm over the past century, and could rise by almost another metre in the next century if we carry on with ‘business as usual'. Higher sea levels will exacerbate the damage caused by extreme events such as high tides and storm surges. Salt-water intrusion will reduce the quality and quantity of freshwater supplies. Ocean circulation patterns will alter, possibly dramatically. The impact on the biological productivity of marine ecosystems will put yet more strain on fish stocks. Inhabitants of small island states, particularly in the Pacific, could lose their homes forever. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns "Storm-surges and flooding could threaten entire [island] cultures".

In 1990, coastal and small island states formed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to demand immediate action on climate change and its impacts, and have been pushing for the strongest emission reductions currently on the table at the international climate negotiations. AOSIS want the industrialised countries, responsible for the majority of climate pollution, to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2005, in order to meet sustainable ecological limits.

Signatories to the United Nations' Climate Convention, including the UK, are committed to work towards "prevent[ing] dangerous anthropogenic [human made] interference with the climate system". The scientific work of the IPCC makes it possible to estimate how much fossil fuel can be extracted and burnt, to stay within temperature and sea level rise limits, to avoid "extensive ecosystem damage". This approach, based on ecological limits, will tell us how much oil, gas and coal we can afford to burn, so that it can be used wisely, in an orderly phase out.

Using an ‘ecological limits' approach we can establish a ‘carbon budget' - the total amount of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels that we can afford to release over the next 100 years. This works out at around 225 billion tonnes of carbon. This means that at current rates of burning we will exhaust our ‘carbon budget' in less than 40 years. If fossil fuel consumption continues to increase, our budget will run out in less than 30 years. It also means that around 75% of the known, economically recoverable reserves of fossil fuels can never be burned. They must remain in the ground. In other words, we already have more than enough fossil fuel reserves.

Continuing to explore for more oil and gas is madness. Every new license given for oil exploration expands reserves and makes the task of staying within the natural limits of climate change more difficult. What is required is a fossil fuel phase out which will allow a planned transition to renewable forms of energy over the next three or four decades. If we continue with ‘business as usual' we face the prospect of an enormous ‘oil shock' in 30 years time when our ‘carbon budget' is exhausted.

So, what has been the attitude of the UK Government at the international climate negotiations? John Gummer, the outgoing UK Secretary of State for the Environment, has been extremely critical of the fossil fuel lobby for promoting their interests "against the interests of the whole of the rest of the community". But at the same time, the Department of Trade and Industry have been ‘fast tracking' a huge new oil development off the west coast of Scotland.

BP are the lead oil company involved - their £826m Foinaven field west of Shetland will begin producing oil soon. BP is also developing a second west of Shetland field, Schiehallion, which is expected to start producing oil in 1998. Over 200 other blocks have already been allocated, involving over 30 companies. As one commentator put it, it's "a near complete roll-call of the world's most significant oil companies".

Greenpeace Campaign

Greenpeace argues that although the UK Government accepts that the greatest single threat comes from burning fossil fuels, it is encouraging a massive new search for off-shore oil. This is going ahead in what Greenpeace calls one of the "last truly global wildernesses" - the Atlantic Frontier.

The Atlantic Frontier lies to the north and west of the UK. Its waters are among the richest habitats in Europe for whales, and its coastal habitats and seas are of world-wide importance for birdlife. The plan to explore for oil here was proposed before the world recognised the problem of climate change and Greenpeace points out that it is part of an outdated energy policy.

A £30,000 application made by Greenpeace to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in March to manage the Atlantic Frontier for non-oil development in the Government's 17th licensing round was later rejected on the grounds that the application did not fulfil the oil drilling criteria. As a result Greenpeace is claiming that the UK Government is in breach of European law because it failed to ensure that full environmental impact assessments (EIAs) or appropriate public consultation were carried out prior to development. An official complaint has been lodged with the European Commission on this issue.

In a letter to the former President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, Greenpeace asked that he suspend the licensing process pending the EC's investigation. As an alternative, conditions could be made forcing the oil companies to comply with the Directive before they take any further steps in the area or before they are given consent to a work plan. The licences are conditional upon the consent of the Minister to the work plans.

In addition to pursuing the EIA complaint, Greenpeace has identified a second possible breach of EU and UK environmental protection laws. According to Greenpeace, the European Habitats Directive requires that full consideration be given to the impact of exploration and drilling on specific habitats including coral reefs. Greenpeace has asked for specific information about what consideration the DTI gave to the Atlantic Frontier's slow growing coral, believed to support a diverse number of species.

The Atlantic Frontier campaign is being conducted as the world's governments who signed up to the Climate Convention in Rio in 1992 begin preparing for the Kyoto Climate Convention summit in December. Greenpeace argues that they must take this opportunity to agree a fossil fuels budget for the world and commit to phasing out. By making much better use of the oil, coal and gas we do burn by improving energy efficiency and introducing clean, renewable energy technologies Greenpeace says it will be possible to phase out fossil fuel use in a rational way.

Beginnings of Change

In a speech at Stanford University in California, BP's Chief Executive recently acknowledged that action to prevent climate change is justified on the basis of the precautionary principle. BP already has a profitable and expanding solar subsidiary, BP Solar, so it is well placed to find profitable market-based alternatives to the continued extraction of oil, compared to other oil companies. Although the company has only invested £60 million in the 10 years of BP Solar's existence, they are hoping sales will increase to US$1bn over the next decade.

Shell has gone one step further than BP. Heinz Rothermund, Managing Director of Shell UK Exploration and Production, told an audience at Strathclyde University, that he recognised that fossil fuels may have to stay in the ground, and asked "..how far is it sensible to explore for and develop new hydrocarbon reserves given that the atmosphere may not be able to cope with greenhouse gases that will emanate from the utilisation of the hydrocarbon reserves discovered already".

Having questioned the entire basis for the expansion of his industry, Rothermund went on to announce that "Shell has recently reorganised its solar power enterprises into a new company - Shell Solar Energy. Investments in photovoltaics will increase rapidly and we are optimistic that this field will prove to be a commercial winner in the coming decades".

If the UK is to play a part in the expected expansion of the solar photovoltaics market, the government will have to offer market support to kick-start the industry in this country. The British Photovoltaic Association (UKPVA), of which BP Solar are a member, have set out a £100 million investment programme by the industry, which, if combined with a Government investment of £18 million a year up to 2010, will generate major economic and environmental benefits; create 40,000 new British jobs and increase Britain's share of the world solar market from 9% to 15%. This would result in annual sales of £750 million per year.

Sooner rather than later we are going to have to phase out fossil fuels, if we are going to avoid serious irreversible damage to our climate, and the first step is to stop exploring for new oil reserves. The Scottish islands, in particular, have an important role to play in the development of renewable technologies. It would be in the best interest of island communities to start now working towards a future without oil. If they can grasp this nettle, not only will they be helping themselves, but they'll be helping the rest of us too.

A 50 page briefing on the Atlantic Frontier is available from

Greenpeace Sane Energy Campaign,
Canonbury Villas,
London, N1 2PN.
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