The UK's top climate advisor has intensified criticism over what he feels are the North Sea oil and gas industry's continued failures to help the nation achieve its legally binding targets to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), says this includes “thoroughly misleading” interpretations of his organisation's projections on greenhouse gas emissions by industry representatives to justify hydrocarbon development and production.

On numerous occasions in the last year, North Sea officials have said that the expected emissions from a number of upcoming oil and gas projects are already built into national carbon budgets, which are set by the CCC.

Speaking during an interview on the sidelines of the recent COP26 climate talks in his home city of Glasgow, Stark, 43, says he is irritated by what he feels is a misrepresentation.

“It frustrates me the way they use the CCC,” he says of the North Sea industry, including its main trade association Oil & Gas UK (OGUK).

The UK in 2019 became the first G7 member to set a net zero target, which will require wholesale changes in the way that Britons travel, eat and consume electricity.

The CCC’s 6th Carbon Budget, covering 2033 to 2037, was published a year ago and recommended the UK cut its emissions by 78% on 1990 levels by 2035.

The CCC currently forecasts 85% reduction in UK oil demand and a 70% reduction in gas demand by mid-century.

“It is true that the CCC says there will be ongoing demand for oil gas in the future — that's not a huge surprise," says Stark, who has held the role of chief executive since April 2018.

“But it is also true to say that every year the CCC finds more and more ways to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and I don't expect that to change.”

Stark, who was previously director of energy and climate change in the Scottish government, feels industry too often implies the CCC is advising that the UK “should” produce and use certain amounts of oil and gas.

“I think it's thoroughly misleading,” he says.

OGUK points out that public and private-sector modelling shows oil and gas is expected to meet around 50% of cumulative energy needs over the next three decades even as demand declines as 2050 approaches.

OGUK sustainability director Mike Tholen says: “At OGUK we will absolutely continue to make the case that the oil and gas we will need should come from our own resources, and not imported at a higher cost to the taxpayer, jobs and the UK’s carbon footprint. That is the opposite of a just transition.”

Stark wants to make clear that he “would much prefer the UK didn't have an ongoing need for oil and gas”.

Controversy

However, he declines to say if he supports or opposes the Cambo development, being planned by Siccar Pointe Energy and Shell in the West of Shetland area, which has attracted controversy in recent months amid opposition from environmental groups.

Instead, Stark feels government ministers and industry should be forced to justify how Cambo would be consistent with the UK’s climate targets if they decide to give the project the green light, as the UK should with any piece of large new infrastructure.

One key event for the sector in the last year has been the agreement of the North Sea Transition Deal between industry and government.

Presented as an "exemplar" for how an ageing oil and gas basin can adapt to to the energy transition, the deal saw industry commit to a series of goals that would drive down emissions associated with production and processing — by 10% by 2025; 25% by 2027; 50% by 2030; and to become a fully net zero basin by 2050.

The CCC, however, has been critical of the deal’s "lack of ambition", in particular the 2030 target, which is less than the 6th Carbon Budget’s recommendation of a 68% reduction by the end of this decade.

Every year the CCC finds more and more ways to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and I don't expect that to change.

CCC chief executive Chris Stark

Stark brands the deal one of the “weaknesses” in the government’s recently announced Net Zero Strategy policy document published in October.

Pressure

He accuses the government of “swallowing” information that was provided by industry when agreeing to the emissions reductions targets and urges ministers to put more pressure on the sector to act so they are consistent with the latest carbon budget pathway.

“I think there is scope for this to be more ambitious. If we worked harder at this it means we don't have to work so hard in other areas to get to net zero,” he said.

“There are some pretty difficult challenges elsewhere. And this is not one of them.”

Stark believes the future commercial success of the sector rests "fundamentally” on companies “having real plans" in place to drive large-scale investment in the energy transition.

He says the record of companies such as renewable energy giant Orsted — formerly oil and gas producer Dong Energy — is that you can achieve a full transition and still deliver value to shareholders.

“That's got to be the goal, really. But it's got to be quicker. These companies have to have investment strategies that are lined up with the emissions reductions that we need,” he says.