30 May 2023

You can’t just stop oil, Sir Keir


Beyond their oft-hysterical tone and self-indulgent tactics, the biggest single problem with Just Stop Oil is that there is no just stopping oil.

All right, if we’re talking purely about the bounds of the possible, we could just stop oil. Modern civilisation would more or less grind to a halt, of course, but we could do it.

There are some deep Greens who truly believe in that deeply misanthropic objective. There is also the slightly more fashionable ‘degrowth’ movement, which could row in behind the idea so long as they didn’t think too hard about the consequences.

But outside those circles, it’s rightly seen as nonsense. One doesn’t have to be a climate change denier, or even oppose huge investment in renewable energy generation and other new technologies, to accept that we live in a machine civilisation that more or less runs on fossil fuels and will do so for some time to come.

(Even after the green industrial revolution, as and when it happens, we will still need oil. We have not yet discovered a miraculous alternative to plastic, and you can’t make plastic from wind and sunlight.)

Trying to brute-force modern society off fossil fuels before adequate alternatives are brought on-stream is a recipe for economic disaster; nobody who complains about the cost of living crisis or the impact of government spending cuts has any business dallying with such an idea.

All of which makes Labour’s recent commitment to ban new oil and gas developments in the North Sea look more than a little nuts.

Sir Keir Starmer isn’t actually going to unveil the full details of this particular ‘national mission’ until next month, so we don’t have the details. Nor, more importantly, does anyone actually involved in the British oil and gas sector, which won’t be doing anything for investment confidence. Nothing has been said about when any such ban would be brought in.

But what matters is that it will contribute very little (if anything) towards the stated goal of reducing this country’s reliance on fossil fuels, for the obvious reason that domestic oil and gas production isn’t driving that demand, it is servicing it.

Were that pipeline to dry up (pun intended), all that would happen is that the United Kingdom’s energy needs would need to be met through more overseas imports – a double-whammy to the balance of trade, as a fair share of current domestic production is exported for plastics and manufacturing.

That means more money going to the many unsavoury regimes around the world which prop themselves up with oil and gas. That almost certainly includes Russia, too – we might not buy from them directly, but there’s arbitrage opportunities for less scrupulous countries to sell on Moscow’s exports with a more palatable flag (and a mark-up). 

At a time of hugely stretched public finances, that isn’t necessarily a case for propping up the North Sea. It is gradually becoming less economical to extract oil and gas from those fields, and there may come a point – perhaps hastened by great leaps in green energy – when they come to the end of their commercial life.

Trying to hasten that point by concentrating government investment in the renewables sector, as Starmer apparently intends to do, is much more like the right way to wean this country (plastics excepted) off fossil fuels – although the fact there’s no mention at all of nuclear in the press coverage is disheartening.

But there is no good reason to ban the private sector from exploring and exploiting British national resources, at its own expense, when we still need those resources. It’s just a weird mutation of Treasury Brain: offloading the carbon footprint of our energy consumption to foreign countries.

Sadly, Labour’s plan fits into a pattern – shared by the Conservatives – of trying to usher in the carbon-neutral Eden by fiat.

This generation of politicians have set 2035 as the deadline for sweeping changes, from getting the National Grid to Net Zero to banning gas boilers and stopping sales of new petrol and diesel-powered cars; yet as James McSweeney has detailed, actual planning for the cliff-edges that would create is patchy or non-existent.

A simple thought experiment suffices: think about this country’s track record on major infrastructure projects, and then try to estimate the odds that we will have a comprehensive network of road charging points in place in just over ten years – let alone the additional grid capacity as the burden of road traffic shifts en masse onto the electricity network. (Happily, the date is just far enough away that everyone involved in setting it will be safely removed from office by the time it arrives; they can then shake their heads sadly that those who came after them let them down so badly.)

This does not mean we should go slow on green technology. Quite the opposite: the only way to reduce our carbon dependency whilst maintaining (or who knows, even enhancing) our standard of living is developing the means to deliver plentiful, reliable energy by alternative means. There is much to look forward to in the prospect of Britain entering its solarpunk era.

But that golden day is not going to be brought any closer by ministerial ukase, no matter how well-intentioned each might be. Starmer would do better, like the wise King Canute to his fawning courtiers, to tell his party and the country that.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.