North Sea oil and gas ban: should Starmer U-turn on Labour pledge?

Environmental wing of the party at odds with unions over fossil fuels and path to a green future

Keir Starmer North Sea Oil
Keir Starmer plans to ban new domestic oil and gas developments if his party wins power
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Keir Starmer has triggered an escalating row among Labour members and backers by pledging to block new domestic oil and gas developments in the North Sea in favour of investment in renewable sources.

The Labour leader is expected to formally set out his proposals to divest from fossil fuels in order to make the UK a “clean energy superpower” in the coming weeks. His “decision to turn off the taps in the North Sea is not expected to come without challenges”, said The Sunday Times.

But according to The Guardian’s political correspondent Kiran Stacey, Starmer has been urged to “stand firm” on the policy, in a letter signed by 139 organisations including environmental groups, trade unions and the Women’s Institute.

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‘Jobs bloodbath’

GMB union general secretary Gary Smith criticised Labour’s “naive” energy plan and said the party had “got it wrong”.

“Their policies are going to create a cliff edge with oil and gas extraction from the North Sea,” Smith told Sky’s Sophy Ridge. “We are critical friends with the Labour Party, and I think there is a lack of critical thinking on oil and gas.”

Fellow union Unite warned of a “jobs bloodbath” comparable to that triggered by the closure of Britain’s coal mines in the 1980s, said The Telegraph. Industry group Offshore Energies UK has estimated that banning new oil and gas licences would lead to 45,000 job losses and a 60% drop in domestic production, the paper reported.

Some experts have warned the halting of future investments into the region may actually “jeopardise” and “undermine” Britain’s net zero ambitions, said City A.M. Academics have reportedly suggested that the move could be “more expensive, more environmentally damaging and less reliable”, as the UK would end up “reliant” on overseas vendors.

“Lunacy” is how ConservativeHome assistant editor’s William Atkinson described the Labour plan. Pursuing the strategy would mean “economic suicide in the name of appeasing Just Stop Oil”. But Labour’s “newfound partiality” for taking donations from backers of the grassroots movement might fuel Starmer’s determination to push on with the plan despite widespread criticism, Atkinson suggested.

‘Face the challenge’

Confirming Labour’s energy plan, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth insisted that ditching oil and gas in favour of renewable energy sources was “important for our climate change commitments”. And “it’s also the way in which we can bring energy bills down for consumers”, he told Trevor Phillips on Sky News.

The Guardian agreed that Starmer was “right to say no to new hydrocarbon extraction from the North Sea”, and praised the party leader for being “admirably straightforward” about his green mission.

“His policies attempt to bridge the gap, while the Tories are merely content with letting delusions rush in to fill it,” the paper said in an editorial last week. Any jobs created at new oil and gas fields are in “a fading industry, not a future one”.

By contrast, Labour expects its new strategy “to create up to half a million jobs in the renewables industry, including at least 50,000 in Scotland”, according to The Sunday Times.

The plan “deliberately places Labour ahead in the green debate”, but risks alienating some voters, said The New Statesman. Given the “increasingly imminent nightmare” of climate change, “we have little choice but to face the challenge” of transitioning to renewables, the site added.

“But there is a balance to be struck, difficult judgements on timing, investment and public opinion to be made.”

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