Pre-action letter calls on BEIS to defend position on controversial oil field decision

The UK Government is lawfully bound to take responsibility for the decision to approve or reject the Cambo oil field contrary to claims that it “cannot intervene”, say campaigners.

In a pre-action letter to the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, campaign groups Uplift and Friends of the Earth Scotland, challenge repeated official statements by BEIS that have been used to deflect calls for the government to reject proposals by Shell and Siccar Point Energy to start oil and gas production. The letter was written in the light of advice received from David Wolfe QC.

Tessa Khan, lawyer and director of Uplift said:
“The government has repeatedly tried to shirk responsibility for this decision, claiming the process is controlled by the regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), and that it “cannot intervene”, but they are wrong. They can and must use the power they have to stop this new and damaging fossil fuel development.”

The letter outlines the government’s apparent misunderstanding of its legal position. In short, the Energy Act (2016) allows the Secretary of State to give directions to the OGA that are “in the public interest”. The Secretary of State also must give their agreement before the OGA can give a project the go-ahead and only when they are satisfied that there will be no significant effect on the environment.

The Cambo heavy crude field off the coast of the Shetland Islands contains over 800 million barrels of oil, 170 million of which are planned to be extracted in its first phase. This alone would create emissions equivalent to operating 18 coal-fired power stations for a year.

Tessa Khan says:
“For a government that enthusiastically took back control from EU regulators, to be suddenly cowed by a UK regulator doesn’t make sense. Kwasi Kwarteng is bound by law to be involved in the decision to approve or reject the Cambo oil field. To claim otherwise is unlawful.”

Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland Director said:
“The climate can’t afford new oil and gas projects like the Cambo field which would be spewing devastating climate pollution for decades. The recent code red climate warning makes it absolutely clear that we must urgently transition away from fossil fuels if we are to limit further climate breakdown. The Government does have the power to stop Cambo and it must use that power instead of trying to wash its hands of this dirty development.“

Notes to editors

1. Examples of UK government comments on its inability to intervene in the Cambo decision:
– BEIS spokesperson said: “The Secretary of State is not involved in the decision whether to grant consent to Cambo oil field – this will be taken by the Oil and Gas Authority, who are ultimately responsible.” (The National, 8 July 2021)
– BEIS spokeswoman said: “The Secretary of State [Kwasi Kwarteng] is not involved in the decision whether to grant consent for the Cambo oil field.” (Evening Standard, 22 July 2021)
– A government source said: “Cambo is not a new oil field, it was licensed in 2001. We cannot intervene. The ongoing approval process is not within our control.” (Sky News website, 5 August 2021)

2. The letter can be seen here: https://upliftuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/PAP-Letter-Cambo-decision-260821.pdf

3. For background information on the proposed Cambo oil field: https://foe-scotland.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=b5ad0d61b2a67d22c68bf7d8d&id=896ecc5f88&e=11842310d7

4. Uplift is a not-for-profit initiative with a mission to support and energise the movement for a just and fossil fuel-free UK. It resources, connects, and elevates ideas and voices to support a just transition away from fossil fuel production.

5. Friends of the Earth Scotland is

* Scotland’s leading environmental campaigning organisation
* An independent Scottish charity with a network of thousands of supporters and active local groups across Scotland
* Part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 73 national member groups, and some 5,000 local activist groups.