King's Speech 2023: Sunak's oil and gas policy 'must have stuck in King's throat' - climate advocates say

Climate groups say the King's speech, outlining the government's policy plans, shows the current government is out of step with what is needed to really reach net zero

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Green politicians and climate action groups say a government plan to effectively "lock in" new fossil fuel exploration in the UK must have been hard for the traditionally environmentally-friendly King to announce.

King Charles has delivered his first State Opening of Parliament speech, outlining the current government's plans for the year ahead, which revealed policies for tougher sentences for serious crimes and a smoking ban. The King also revealed that oil and gas exploration licences will be awarded annually under a new bill, in order to “strengthen the United Kingdom’s energy security and reduce reliance on volatile international energy markets and hostile foreign regimes”.

The King added that this would allow the country to move towards its net zero by 2050 target without putting pressure on households. The announcement comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak controversially announced that at least a hundred new oil and gas exploration licences will be granted from the latest licencing round - with 27 already approved by regulators.

The Conservative government has also softened a number of its other green policies recently, saying they will help protect Britons from "unacceptable costs". In September, the Prime Minister announced delays to the banning of new petrol and diesel vehicles - originally set for 2030 - would be pushed back five years, while only 80% of gas boilers would need to be phased out by 2035 rather than all of them - moves expert government advisors have said will make it harder to reach net zero.

Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said the speech must have really stuck in King Charles' throat - especially with his long history of environmentalism. "There’s nothing in it to offer communities any hope with the cost of living crisis or the growing impacts of the climate emergency," he said. 

King Charles III has delivered his first official State Opening of Parliament speech (Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire)King Charles III has delivered his first official State Opening of Parliament speech (Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire)
King Charles III has delivered his first official State Opening of Parliament speech (Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire)

"Instead, Rishi Sunak has decided, when in a climate hole, keep digging. Pushing for new oil and gas drilling licences is an act of environmental vandalism. Especially at a time when the country is reeling from hugely damaging storms and floods, which scientists warn will become more frequent, ferocious and destructive as our planet heats.

"Encouraging energy giants to exploit fossil fuel reserves they then sell on the global market at global prices cannot provide either security or cheaper energy bills," Ramsay continued. "Energy security, addressing high energy bills and reducing emissions will only come from ramping up cheaper and abundant renewable resources such as solar and onshore wind together with a mass home insulation programme."

The speech, however, was a challenge to Labour, if they were to win at the next general election, the Green co-leader said. "Will they pledge to undo the damage inflicted on the climate by the Conservatives today and commit to not a single new oil and gas licence from day one of a Labour government?"

Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said the new policies left the UK's government out of step with the rest of the world. “All of the world’s superpowers are investing heavily in green infrastructure, renewables and the clean tech of the future because they know it will generate economic growth, jobs and ultimately help to stop the planet from burning," she said.

Instead, the Prime Minister had lined up a "licencing bonanza" for the oil and gas industry, she said, that was unlikely to lower British households' energy bills. "It would take a fool to think that a strategy solely aiming to sow doubt, regress on climate and nature, and stir up anger based on falsehoods is going to win votes. Sunak’s about to learn that the hard way.”

Jamie Peters, climate coordinator at Friends of the Earth, added: “If there was a prize for political posturing, Rishi Sunak would win best in show". The King’s speech offered "few surprises", Peters said, but Sunak's "continued obsession with undermining green policies" was out of step with voters, "who want to protect the environment for future generations, and left nothing to inspire hope among the millions of people facing another winter of sky-high energy bills".

“With the cost living crisis deepening and the climate and nature emergencies accelerating, Sunak could have used this moment to set out strong laws to boost the economy, cut harmful emissions and bring down our energy bills for good. Instead, the Prime Minister chose to side with the fossil fuel industry by offering more hand-outs – even if largely symbolic – at a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet."

Meanwhile, Conservative Environment Network director Sam Hall warned the political focus on new oil and gas exploration could undermine voters’ perception of the Conservatives’ commitment to climate action before the next general election. "It could also overshadow efforts to promote the party’s positive record on renewables, which is not widely known and significantly more popular," he said.

"We will need oil and gas for the next few decades. Indeed, it is economically sensible to pursue a fair transition, rather than a cliff edge, away from homegrown fossil fuel production. But North Sea oil and gas reserves are now depleted and expensive to extract," he added. "A more practical way to improve energy security would be to commission new offshore wind farms in next year’s renewables auction and offer tax breaks to households to insulate their homes.”

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