The head of the GMB union, one of Labour’s biggest donors, has called on party leader Keir Starmer to scrap plans to ban all new North Sea fossil fuel extraction licences.
Gary Smith said there was a “national security imperative” to keep Britain’s oil and gas industry alive given the country will keep using those fuels for decades even under its “Net Zero 2050” target.
“It would be self-defeating not to maximise extraction from our own oil and gas, and that’s going to be a difficult debate but it’s one we’ll have to face down,” the GMB general secretary said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Starmer confirmed in January that the Labour manifesto will include a pledge to issue no new North Sea licences, although companies would be able to exploit sites which already have existing permission from the authorities. That policy is part of an ambitious “Green Prosperity Plan” designed to accelerate Britain’s progress towards net zero.
But the plan has caused consternation inside the GMB, Britain’s biggest manufacturing union.
Smith said that “strangling” the North Sea oil industry would be “bad for jobs” and would be “bad for the environment” because the UK would still have to import gas and oil from overseas with a higher carbon footprint.
“There’s ethics involved; are we going to keep funding these regimes in the Middle East and the likes of Russia, or do we take responsibility for our own carbon and create jobs and investment here?” he said.
Smith also argued that the big oil and gas companies could be “vital” in providing investment in renewable energy projects in the future.
“There’s no point strangling the industry. We need to work with the industry to encourage investment in the green technologies of the future,” he said.
Smith said that Starmer’s team were “in the mood to listen” to his argument before Labour’s National Policy Forum meets in the summer and added that his union would press the case at the party’s October conference in Liverpool.
“The mood music in the party is different,” he said. “The Labour party understands that there is a national security imperative around this as well. Our biggest challenge is going to be how we keep the lights on and keep homes heated and industry powered over the next decade, we are one pipeline or one cable going down away from a serious energy crisis.”
On Thursday Graham Stuart, the climate minister, said the government was “committed to new oil and gas licences in the North Sea”, insisting that was compatible with Net Zero.
Philip Evans, climate campaigner from Greenpeace — which has an ongoing legal challenge against the government’s new licensing round for oil and gas — said that was an “absurd” position for the minister to take.
“All new oil and gas drilling is incompatible with 1.5C. Don’t just take my word for it, this is also the view of the International Energy Agency, the UN secretary-general, as well as countless academics and scientists,” he said.
“If the government had a shred of interest in limiting the effects of the climate crisis it would reverse its decision to allow more fossil fuel production, and stop propping up an industry that’s destroying the planet.”
A Labour aide said that a Starmer government would not be “turning off the taps” immediately and would allow companies to continue to develop North Sea fields where they already have licences.
“Oil and gas will continue to play an important role in the transition to net zero and the skills and expertise of oil and gas workers will be vital as we move to different sources of energy,” he said. “Labour’s plans will . . . deliver energy security for the country and good jobs for these workers, including in clean energy sources.”