UK ministers prepare to unveil new energy strategy

Debate over fracking, wind and North Sea hydrocarbons comes amid Ukraine war and fuel price surge

Government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said "every drop" of North Sea oil should be extracted. Getty

The UK will unveil a new energy security strategy on Thursday, Downing Street has said, as the fallout from the war in Ukraine prompts a revived debate over fracking and wind power in Britain.

The announcement came as the government was urged to speed up energy efficiency upgrades in buildings with the aim of cutting Britain’s imports of politically sensitive Russian gas by 80 per cent this year.

Consumer fuel prices were already surging across Europe before the drive to reduce the continent's reliance on Russian fossil fuels, piling pressure on governments to diversify their energy supplies.

Although ministers say Britain is not reliant on Russia in particular, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said there is an “urgent need for Britain to become energy independent” to free itself from the fickle gas market.

“This is no longer about tackling climate change or reaching net zero targets,” he said. “Leaving our country continually exposed to a gas market that can be manipulated by the Kremlin would be a complete dereliction of duty.”

The strategy will set out how Britain can generate more of its own energy, with zero-carbon technologies such as nuclear, wind, solar and hydrogen all in the government’s sights.

At the same time, ministers are being urged to lower demand for gas by improving energy efficiency in homes and speeding up the replacement of domestic gas boilers with electric ones.

Climate think tank E3G, which seconded some of its advisers to the UK government at the Cop26 summit last year, said Thursday’s strategy document should commit to reducing gas demand by 25 per cent this decade.

“By ramping up the energy efficiency of UK buildings and accelerating renewables deployment, the government can take an axe to UK gas demand,” said E3G campaigns director Ed Matthew.

More controversial are the government’s signals that less climate-friendly oil and gas extraction from the North Sea will be expanded to meet short-term needs.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a minister in the cabinet office, said in a radio interview on Monday that oil companies should extract “every last drop” from Britain’s waters and be allowed to keep their profits amid calls for a windfall tax.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman separately said it was “right that domestic-produced oil and gas will play an important part in the transition to net zero”.

Britain aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in what it regards as its contribution to limiting global warming to 1.5ºC, the goal of the Paris Agreement.

Onshore wind is not seen with enthusiasm by some British MPs. PA

Mr Rees-Mogg described a resumption of shale gas fracking as an “interesting opportunity” and downplayed the risks of earthquakes which prompted the government to ban the practice in 2019.

He said he was impressed by a report from the Royal Society which argued fracking could be safely done as he called for “proportionality about the seismic issues”.

But ministers have previously argued that fracking would not lower prices, and Mr Johnson’s spokesman said on Monday that the practice could only succeed if it was deemed to be safe and cause minimal disturbance to local citizens.

Also dividing opinion is onshore wind power, with the government’s enthusiasm for offshore turbines not universally extending to the mainland.

Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said at the weekend that turbines could be an eyesore and that he did not favour a “vast increase” in onshore wind.

Downing Street said turbines should be built where there is local support but that more would be revealed in Thursday’s strategy document.

Updated: April 04, 2022, 3:23 PM