(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak committed to granting hundreds of new licenses for oil and gas production in the North Sea, part of a push to increase Britain’s energy independence and create dividing lines with the opposition Labour Party.
“Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security,” Sunak said in a statement Monday ahead of a visit to Scotland to announce the plans. “Even when we’ve reached net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will come from oil and gas.”
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Energy and climate policies have risen up the political agenda following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis, which has fueled concerns that green policies can hurt household finances. Critics have warned that the UK has failed to invest enough to beef up energy security as other countries, such as the US, pump money into green technology.
The government said the first new licenses would be issued in the autumn, with over 100 expected in total in the current licensing round. Sunak also announced support for two new carbon capture projects in Scotland and northern England, and his government reiterated a commitment to review the tax regime for oil and gas as it tries to encourage investment.
The Conservatives see energy and the debate on climate change as an area where they can continue to score points against Labour and try to narrow the opposition’s large poll lead. The Tories’ narrow victory in a special election in northwest London this month — in large part due to local opposition to a Labour-led program to charge motorists using vehicles that fall below emissions standards — has turned energy policy into a political football.
Read more: Britain Wobbles on Green Policies That Built Climate Legacy
Sunak has signaled his willingness to back away from the so-called green agenda, and granting more North Sea licenses fits his new political approach. But the prime minister has stopped short of delaying the deadline for a 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars despite growing pressure from Conservative backbench MPs.
“I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them,” Sunak said in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. “The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on their cars. When I’m lucky enough to get home to North Yorkshire it’s more representative of how most of the country is living, where cars are important.”
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Labour hit back at the government’s approach. Ed Miliband, the party’s climate change and net zero secretary, accused the Tories of waging a “culture war on climate,” saying his party is focused on “lower bills and good jobs.”
“Every family and business is paying the price, in higher energy bills, of 13 years of failed Tory energy policy,” Miliband said on Sunday. “It is absurd that having left this country so exposed, the Conservative Party is asking the public to believe they can fix it.”