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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Clash Over North Sea's Rosebank Oilfield Project

  • Equinor, the Norwegian firm, is developing the Rosebank oilfield as part of the UK's North Sea Transition deal for energy security, but it faces opposition from politicians and environmentalists.
  • The company claims that the project will contribute significantly to the UK economy and provide low-carbon oil through innovative technologies.
  • A new plan to power Rosebank using electricity from a wind development in Shetland may help make the case for low-carbon oil, but critics argue that this just diverts renewable energy from other uses and that the oil is mostly for export, not UK energy security.
North Sea Oil

The U.K.’s planned North Sea Rosebank oilfield development, to be led by Norwegian firm Equinor, could be key to the country’s energy security. However, environmentalists are understandably concerned about the impact a new oil project may have on the environment during a time of green transition, with many suggesting that it goes against the country’s climate pledges. Equinor is still fighting for the go-ahead and using the argument of low-carbon oil as its main motivator. New reports suggest a wind farm development in the region could be key to powering production, helping to reduce the project’s carbon emissions. But in a project that would be three times bigger than the controversial Cambo oilfield development can Equinor win public favour?

Equinor acquired the operatorship of Rosebank in 2019 and is developing the field with partners. The Rosebank is located 130 kilometres west of the Shetland Islands in the North Sea, off of Scotland. Its development forms part of the UK government’s North Sea Transition deal, which sees further development of North Sea oil and gas resources to ensure the U.K.’s energy security, while the country’s renewable energy capacity is being expanded. Rosebank is expected to produce its first oil in 2027, to be transported to refineries via shuttle tankers, with gas being exported using the West of Shetland Pipeline system. Equinor believes Rosebank will directly contribute £ 8.1 billion, with £6.3 billion likely to be invested in UK-based businesses. It is also expected to provide 1,600 jobs at the height of the construction phase, in 2025. 

In May, the North Sea Rosebank project was deemed “very important” by Equinor’s CFO Torgrim Reitan. He also suggested the development would be highly tax efficient and would offer major industrial benefits. If the project goes ahead, it is expected to support the U.K.’s energy security during a time of greater uncertainty and rising oil and gas prices. In addition, the company says the development will provide low-carbon oil thanks to the deployment of innovative technologies. It will use a redeployed, refurbished Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessel (FPSO) tied to a subsea production system, which will be electrification-ready to be powered from shore. This is expected to help reduce Rosebank’s emissions by more than 70 percent, with a CO2 output of around 3kg a barrel once electrification begins, compared to the North Sea average of 20kg. 

However, the 300-million-barrel Rosebank project has faced staunch opposition from certain politicians, as well as environmentalists. The Conservative politician Chris Skidmore stated: “There is no such thing as a new net zero oilfield. Approving Rosebank would undermine UK claims to climate leadership on the world stage, undermine what the climate science tells us and undermine our efforts to achieve a net zero Britain by mid-century. To enhance our energy security, the government must say no to Rosebank, and instead give the green light to energy efficiency, rooftop solar, onshore wind and other forms of clean energy supply.”

But a new plan is going ahead which could prove the potential for low-carbon oil. Electricity from a new onshore wind development in Shetland could be used to power Rosebank if it gets the go-ahead. Equinor and partners have stated of the planned development, “Electrification connected to the electrical grid on Shetland has the greatest potential for [greenhouse gas] reduction with the proposed windfarms on Shetland providing a low carbon source of energy via cable.” 

The final approval of the oilfield is expected to reach the energy secretary, Grant Shapps, in the coming weeks. And several important politicians have already signalled the need for a local oil and gas supply chain to ensure the U.K.’s mid-term energy security. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, suggested it would be economically illiterate” not to invest in UK oil and gas because the U.K. will continue to be dependent on fossil fuels for “the next few decades”. 

But climate activists remain convinced that the U.K. does not need Rosebank to ensure its energy security and that no- or low-carbon oil cannot truly exist, because it relies on power from renewable energy operations to offset emissions. The executive director of the campaigning group Uplift, Tessa Khan, explained: “Rosebank is oil for export and will do nothing to boost the UK’s energy security.” Khan added, “If it also ends up taking vast amounts of cheap, clean energy that could be used to power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, it will end up actively reducing the UK’s energy security. This would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.” 

There continues to be a standoff between different political parties and politicians, as well as climate activists, when it comes to U.K. oil and gas. While new North Sea developments could support mid-term energy security, while demand remains strong, as well as attracting investment in the country, it could also go against the government’s climate pledges and efforts at a green transition. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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