Activists carry a banner reading, "Stop Rosebank."

Campaigners take part in a Stop Rosebank emergency protest outside the U.K. Government building in Edinburgh, after the controversial Equinor Rosebank North Sea oil field was given the go-ahead Wednesday, September 27, 2023.

(Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

‘Morally Obscene’: UK Approves Massive Undeveloped Oil and Gas Field in North Sea

"The disgraceful decision to give Rosebank the green light shows the extent of the U.K. government's climate denial," one activist said.

Regulators in the United Kingdom on Wednesday greenlit the Rosebank oilfield in the North Sea, which campaigners warn contains enough oil and gas to match the yearly emissions of 28 low-income countries.

The U.K. government said it welcomed the approval, in a statement that comes one week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced he was delaying some elements of the country's net-zero plan.

"By approving Rosebank, Rishi Sunak has confirmed he couldn't care less about climate change," climate lawyer and executive director of the advocacy group Uplift Tessa Khan said in a statement. "As we've heard repeatedly, our world can no longer sustain new oil and gas drilling. And when we're witnessing scorching temperatures, wildfires, devastating flooding, and heatwaves in our seas, it could not be clearer that this is a decision by the prime minister to add more fuel to the fire."

Rosebank, which is located off the northwest coast of the Shetland Islands, is the largest currently undeveloped oil field in the U.K., CNBCreported. Equinor, Norway's state-owned oil company, has an 80% share in the project, with British company Ithaca Energy holding the remaining 20%.

Equinor said it expected development to begin in 2026-2027 and for the field to produce more than 300 million barrels of oil overall, while Friends of the Earth Scotland said it contained 500 million barrels.

The approval comes despite the fact that the International Energy Agency concluded in 2021 that no new fossil fuel projects should be launched if world leaders wanted to limit global heating to 1.5°C. It also comes on the heels of a government report finding that a record number of people in England died of heat-related causes in 2022.

"This decision is nothing but carte blanche to fossil fuel companies to ruin the climate, punish bill payers, and siphon off obscene profits."

Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas called the approval "the greatest act of environmental vandalism in my lifetime" in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"This is morally obscene," she added in a second post. "It won't improve energy security or lower bills—but it will shatter our climate commitments and demolish global leadership. Govt is complicit in this climate crime—as is Labour unless they pledge to do all possible to revoke it."

Sunak, a conservative, promised to approve hundreds of oil and gas drilling licenses in the North Sea in July, arguing it was necessary for energy security. The opposition Labour Party says it will prioritize renewable energy if it takes power, but will respect any licenses or approvals already in place, according to Reuters.

"The disgraceful decision to give Rosebank the green light shows the extent of the U.K. government's climate denial," Friends of the Earth Scotland's oil and gas campaigner Freya Aitchison said in a statement. "Fossil fuels are driving both climate breakdown and the cost of living crisis yet the U.K. Government is slamming its foot down on the accelerator."

Aitchison also called on the Scottish government specifically to oppose the project.

"Delivering a fair and fast transition away from fossil fuels is one of the defining challenges of Humza Yousaf's term as First Minister," Aitchison said. "This must start with unequivocally condemning Rosebank and opposing the U.K. government's decision to go ahead with a project that deliberately prioritizes the interests of Equinor while bringing little or no benefit to Scottish people."

Campaigners also questioned who would benefit from the project. While the government argued that it would inject cash into the economy and create almost 1,600 jobs, activists pointed out that Equinor made £62 billion in pre-tax profits last year and would get more than £3.75 billion in tax breaks for its work on Rosebank, meaning the U.K. would ultimately lose £750 million in tax money from the field's development.

"The ugly truth is that Sunak is pandering to vested interests, demonstrating the stranglehold the fossil fuel lobby has on government decision-making. And it's bill payers and the climate that will suffer because of it," Greenpeace U.K. climate campaigner Philip Evans said in a statement. "Why else would he make such a reckless decision?

"This decision is nothing but carte blanche to fossil fuel companies to ruin the climate, punish bill payers, and siphon off obscene profits," Evans added.

Opponents of the project have promised to take legal action to stop it.

"There are strong grounds to believe that the way this government has come to this decision is unlawful," Khan said in a statement. "We shouldn't have to fight this government for cheap, clean energy, and a liveable climate, but we will."

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