UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced new funding for two new carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects in the country today (Monday) and launched a new oil and gas licensing round offering 100 licences, triggering an angry response from climate change campaigners seeking a more decisive pivot toward renewables.

In a visit to Aberdeen, Sunak confirmed that the Acorn project in north-east Scotland and the Viking project, in England's Humber estuary, had been chosen as the third and fourth CCS clusters to qualify under a government funding programme.

The UK government said CCS schemes would help it grow the economy and meet its 2050 net zero commitment. while providing thousands of jobs.

Greenwashing claims

Opponents to CCS argue that such projects are merely a mechanism for perpetuating the role of fossil fuels in meeting energy demand and they often try to challenge the feasibility of projects designed to "permanently" store captured CO2 in depleted oil and gas fields or in saline aquifers.

Doug Parr, chief scientist with environmental group Greenpeace told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the UK government is engaging in a public relations campaign that is trying to "persuade people that products are environmentally friendly, when they are not."

Also on BBC radio, March Church, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, described the projects as "yet another massive public subsidy to oil companies who have been making billions in profits, while ordinary people are struggling to pay the bills.

"Instead of handing more money to polluters, it is time to redirect that investment to climate solutions that we know can deliver emissions cuts and improve people's lives today," she said.

Proponents of industrial CCS say such projects are already a proven technology and have been chafing at the bit as they waited for the UK government to conclude its slow-moving approvals process for more projects.

The Acorn project that also counts UK supermajor Shell and North Sea Midstream Partners as co-venturers, has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. The project proponents had hoped it would secure government support two years ago, but then it lost out to two CCS projects in England.

"We are thrilled that the Acorn Project has advanced directly into Track 2. Acorn has been progressed by the development partners as the Track 1 reserve since late 2021 and is ready to move promptly to support the decarbonisation of Scotland and the wider UK,” commented Nick Cooper, the CEO of project operator Storegga.

“Acorn will be a major contributor towards meeting the UK and Scotland’s carbon reduction targets, able to serve emitters connected by pipeline and ship.”

Independent oil company Harbour, operator of the Humber-based Viking CO2 transportation and storage network, and partner in the Acorn CCS project, also welcomed the awarding of Track 2 status as part of the UK government's CCS cluster sequencing process.

Harbour hailed the announcement as marking “an important milestone”, which allows the two projects to move into front-end engineering and design (FEED) and discussions with the government over the terms of the economic licences, ahead of final investment decisions.

Viking has the potential to transport and store up to 10m tonnes per annum of CO2 by 2030 and 15mtpa by 2035, with independently verified storage capacity of 300 million tonnes of CO2 across the depleted Viking gas fields.

Acorn is described as a transportation and storage system which reuses legacy oil and gas infrastructure to transport captured industrial CO2 emissions from the Scottish Cluster, to permanent storage 2.5km under the North Sea.

It is expected to store around 5m tonnes of CO annually in its first stage, with 1mtpa of this earmarked from the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemicals complex.

Greenwashing claims

The political temperature around climate and energy policies is rising in the UK, especially since a recent conservative by-election win in the West London seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip was attributed to a back-lash of the extension of high-polluting vehicle emission charges to outer suburbs.

Sunak, whose predecessor ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson originally introduced central London's ultra low emission zone charge when he was mayor of London in 2015, said on Sunday that he supported motorists and pledged to review low traffic neighbourhoods in England.

The opposition Labour Party, which has a big lead in opinion polls, is also backing CCS projects but has vowed to end all new licensing of oil and gas licensing if elected.

Sunak told BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that the Acorn project will support thousands of jobs across the UK and defended the future award of hundreds of new oil and gas licences in as "the right thing to do".

He added: "Even when we reach net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will still come from oil and gas, and domestic gas production has about a quarter or a third of the carbon footprint of imported gas,” BBC News reported.

Aberdeen South MP, Stephen Flynn, who has criticised the delays in approving the CCS projects today claimed "broken promises" had left Scotland's green energy future in jeopardy.

Upstream expansion

For its new licenses, the UK government and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) stressed that the joint commitment to undertake future licensing rounds would continue to be subject to a climate compatibility test.

The UK government says offering acreage near already licensed areas will allow for new reserves to be found and developed more quickly.

Energy Secretary Grant Shapps said last month that existing North Sea concessions would not be enough to meet demand because of the basin's mature, fast-declining nature.

The NSTA, which regulates the UK's oil, gas and carbon storage industries, expects the first of the new licences to be awarded in the autumn, with the round expected to award over 100 licences in total.

Sunak added: "We have all witnessed how Putin has manipulated and weaponised energy – disrupting supply and stalling growth in countries around the world.

"Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalise on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy to British homes and businesses."

Labour's shadow climate change secretary Ed Milliband said the party will deliver energy security without new licensing.

Criticism came from Sunak's own ranks too. Former Conservative energy minister Chris Skidmore, who helped turn the UK's net zero pledge into law,issued a statement criticising the government's decision today to issue new oil and gas licences.

"This is the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heat waves.

"It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries and not fossil fuels," he wrote.

Material published first on Upstream forms part of this article