• The reaction to Sunak’s approval of 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences said it all
  • The new licences won’t lower energy bills, decrease imports or halt North Sea decline
  • Net zero has become the new culture war front line

I’ve written before about my previous life as a journalist and the difficulty in getting sources to go on the record.

You see, my experience as a journalist for well over ten years was that, no matter how much you asked, some people just didn’t want to attach their names to the juicy quote they had just provided you with.

For a reporter, this was always a pain as it would undoubtedly mean you’d have to do a lot more ferreting around and legwork to get your story published.

Every news organisation has slightly different rules on how anonymous sources can be used in a story, but most of them generally require the reporter to find other credible sources who can back up and, essentially, corroborate what the original source said.

One news organisation I worked for stated the story could be run with three off-the-record sources. Another organisation mandated the number had to be at least five.

The premise behind this is that readers think sources are more likely to be honest if their names are published, and more likely to lie if granted anonymity.

This is not always true, of course.

Sometimes, on the record, people in sensitive positions will often, simply mouth the official line, whereas, off the record, sources will be much more candid and tell you what they really think.

That’s because, in speaking to journalists, people often fear for their jobs or business relationships so they don’t want to see their names in print if it could in any way jeopardise their particular circumstances.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, I thought about how to treat on-the-record quotes when reading the reaction to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s approval of 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences last week.

As you will likely have read, the prime minister claimed the approvals would make energy “more affordable” for consumers. He said his plans would “boost domestic gas productions, which means British homes and businesses will have access to cleaner and cheaper energy.”

On receiving these quotes, any journalist covering this story would have immediately opened their contact books and tried to find other sources to either express support for these plans or, in the name of balance, provide a dissenting voice.

Under the normal journalistic convention, described above, you’d expect anyone wanting to lambast the plans but fearful of the backlash if their names were made public would request anonymity. These might include members of Sunak’s Conservative Party.

Indeed, in this instance, you might expect all the on-the-record “balancing” quotes to derive from the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green parties, or even from other clean energy trade groups or think-tanks.

But what was interesting about the reaction to Sunak’s strategy was the heap of people spanning the ideological and political divide who rushed to lambast the plans on the record.

In fact, in what must have been a field day for the journalists covering the story, there was seemingly little need to resort to any dissenting off-the-record quotes at all.

Interestingly, much of the most vitriolic comments derived from Sunak’s own Tory party.

Former energy minister and current Tory MP Chris Skidmore called Sunak’s strategy “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time” and said he would ask the speaker for an emergency debate when parliament returns from its summer break.

“It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries and not fossil fuels,” added Skidmore.

Zac Goldsmith, the Tory former climate minister, agreed. He tweeted:

After 13 yrs in power a Party needs a compelling story to win another term. Does the Prime Minister really think dropping our int’l environmental leadership & rolling back our domestic commitments is that winning story? If so he must have a dim view of the people he wants to lead.

Others also rubbished the prime minister’s suggestion that more drilling in the North Sea would combat rising household energy costs.

“This [decision] will not bring down bills as there isn’t enough gas to move the dial on international market prices and the oil and gas industry’s own estimates show the North Sea will continue to decline no matter what the government policy is,” said Jess Ralston, from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit [ECIU], an independent advisory group.

From what I could tell, only Andrew Bowie, minister for nuclear and networks, was willing to put his head above the parapet and publicly defend Sunak’s position, telling BBC Breakfast, “This is absolutely in line with our net zero commitments.”

Of course, what Bowie or anyone else in the government didn’t do was to clarify or provide any data to back-up Sunak’s claims that new North Sea extraction would lower bills, decrease imports or help Britain meet its net zero pledges.

And it’s here where we run into some problems.

It’s worth remembering that any fossil fuels mined from the North Sea belong to the licence holder – and most of those are multinational or state-owned fossil fuel companies owned by other national governments.

In fact, approximately 80% of the oil produced in UK waters is already exported. In short, North Sea output just isn’t controlled by Britain.

What’s more, if Sunak has a plan on how these multinational firms will choose to sell their hydrocarbons at a discounted rate to British consumers, then it wasn’t forthcoming. After all, oil and gas extracted from the North Sea is traded internationally at international prices.

Let’s remember, too, that the North Sea is already in decline.

Much of the North Sea’s fossil fuel supplies have already been mined – meaning we need to find an alternative.

A Scottish government minister said in January that the production of oil and gas in the North Sea is expected to be around a third of 1999 levels by 2035.

Michael Matheson said:

“That projection takes account of the remaining potential development in the North Sea and is without any political decision to reduce consumption due to the climate emergency.

“This means that domestic production will effectively end within the next 20 years if we do nothing.

In any case, as Carbon Brief points out, oil and gas licences typically take around 28 years to harvest new fossil fuels – meaning they may not produce anything until the 2030s or 2050s, regardless.

Contrary, too, to what Sunak and Bowie state is the fact that scientists and international bodies, including the traditionally hydrocarbon-friendly International Energy Agency and the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, have all called for an immediate halt to new fossil fuel supply projects to achieve the 2050 global net zero target.

So if the new licences won’t bring down our energy bills, decrease imports or hardly halt the terminal decline in North Sea output at all, then what exactly is Sunak up to?

Well, analysis by Global Witness has revealed that between January and March of this year, Sunak and his energy ministers met with fossil fuel companies 54 times, on average more than once every two days.

The meetings amounted to around 20% of all lobbying meetings that were held in that period, according to the analysis. Last year, the Conservative Party and its MPs registered £3.5 million in donations from climate sceptics, fossil fuel interests and high carbon-emitting industries.

If it needs spelling out, with clean energy and net zero increasingly on the front line of the new culture wars, Sunak is more interested in the Conservative Party becoming the political wing of fossil fuels than reducing your bill or averting environmental crisis.

And that’s on the record.

James Allen
Contributing Editor, Fortune & Freedom