2007 - 2021

Some Key Myths about the Cambo Oil Field

Keith Alexander explores some of the myths used to defend the indefensible and support new oil developments in the midst of climate crisis.

After coming under increased pressure from climate activists over the development of Cambo, a major oil field near Shetland, Nicola Sturgeon wrote to Boris Johnson asking that it be reappraised against a “Climate Compatibility Checkpoint”.

Sturgeon’s support for assessing new fossil fuel developments on a case by case basis is in stark contrast with the International Energy Agency’s analysis that, to meet our climate target of limiting global heating to 1.5ºC, oil, gas and coal use will all need to fall rapidly to the extent that no new oil, gas or coal developments should now occur. The IEA’s executive director, Dr Fatih Birol, says that the UK’s decision on Cambo could be an important step in influencing other countries’ decisions.

Alongside her suggestion that Cambo be reappraised however, Sturgeon appears to raise a possible justification for new oil fields: that we must reduce reliance on  “domestic production of oil and gas […] without increasing imports – which would potentially increase emissions”.

This claim was reiterated by the UK Government’s Minister for Scotland David Duguid: “It is far preferable for the UK’s needs to come from our domestic supply, supporting our own workers, rather than relying on imports whose sources may not be responsibly recovered.”

These sentiments echo those of Oil and Gas UK, and of Shell, who own a 30% stake in Cambo. “As long as the UK still needs oil and gas in its consumption for its society,” said Chief Executive Ben van Beurden,  “it’s better to produce it in its own backyard.” 

These claims not only refuse to address the IEA’s call for no new fossil fuel developments, they misrepresent the relationship between UK oil production and domestic consumption of oil products.

Much like the “household fallacy”, where government debt is (re) imagined as household debt to justify austerity measures, the North Sea is imagined as akin to a vegetable garden cultivated for domestic needs to justify continued exploitation. However, governments are not households, and oil is not backyard produce. Oil is a globally traded commodity and relatively little of the oil extracted from UK territory makes its way through UK refineries to domestic consumption.


In the last 5 years, despite being a net importer of oil, the UK exported 81% of crude oil extracted. UK refineries export around 40% of their products. The UK Government’s energy statistics report (DUKES) explains that UK refineries were developed to produce fuel oil for electricity generation, and petrol. As UK demand has shifted over time towards diesel and jet fuel, UK refineries have exported more of their output overseas, making the UK one of the largest petrol exporters in the OECD, and one of the largest importers of road diesel and jet fuel.

So, licensing the extraction of more oil from the North Sea does not ensure that the oil-based products used in the UK will be produced to high environmental standards. Even if it did, it would also need to be true that, by producing the oil in the UK, an equivalent quantity of oil would be prevented from being produced elsewhere. This argument is made by other fossil fuel producers too. This argument is made by a number of fossil fuel producers, for example: West Cumbria Coal Mine would be carbon negative by negating imports and their shipping emissions; Norway’s oil and gas would displace oil and gas from regions with higher production emissions; Shell’s fuel production would be done by other companies if not by them.

These views are not widely accepted by independent experts. Shell lost the court case in which they argued they merely displaced other producers; the court assessment cited studies showing that increasing supply increases consumption, while decreasing supply lowers consumption.

In Norway, a report from their national statistics institute found that down-scaling oil extraction was the most cost-effective way for Norway to lower global emissions. And the IEA, in its report on net zero by 2050, called for no new fossil fuel developments, rather than more developments with lower production emissions. The country with the lowest production emissions by far – half the emissions per barrel of UK production – is Denmark, who, in 2020, announced that they would stop further oil & gas exploration and phase out production by 2050 as part of their commitment to stopping climate change.

Building on a growing body of research highlighting the necessity of constraining fossil fuel supply, the UN Environmental Program has begun publishing annual Production Gap reports on the gap between how much countries’ fossil fuel production plans exceed commitments to reduce emissions (see also here). Emissions need to drop steeply and immediately if we are to restrict warming to 1.5ºC or even 2ºC, but countries’ production plans over the next twenty years have global annual emissions climbing even higher.

Each country’s government may claim, as the UK and Scottish Governments (and the oil and gas lobbyist group OGUK) do, that their fossil fuel production is compatible with 1.5ºC.  But aggregated together, these new fossil fuel developments put us on a devastating trajectory of rising emissions for decades yet. UK and Scottish governments say that new oil and gas fields will pass, as Nicola Sturgeon said, “a robust Compatibility Checkpoint that is fully aligned with our climate change targets and obligations”.

But no new oil and gas fields anywhere in the world are compatible with our climate change targets, so no assessment process that allows more fossil fuel developments to proceed can be robust or credible.

As host of the fast-approaching COP26, the climate credibility of the UK matters. The justification of new oil fields premised on the net balance of UK supply and demand is unlikely to appear fair to other countries, most of whom produce far less oil, and still less to France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Belize, California, Greenland and Denmark, who have already made the commitment to keep their oil in the ground.


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Comments (17)

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  1. henry hooper says:

    So only circa 15% of UK crude exits Europe, thats actually surprising. I’d say Sturgeon, Duigud, Cambo, O&GUK have a good point.
    Much better for Europe (and the UK) to produce our own than import from the Middle East.
    Having worked in the oil business in Middle East/GCC and North Africa; Qatar, KSA, Kuwait,Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria … you really, really would not like their attitude emissions, plastics, pollution.
    Trust me we would be doing the worlds climate a favour if we manufactured our own.
    But lets get this hydrogen thing going. The sooner we have a reasonable practicable alternative the better

    1. David McCann says:

      I tend to agree

    2. David Somervell says:

      Oh dear, Henry, you really have not got it have you?! Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Period. As for any Blue Hydrogen (processing fossil fuels gas and sequestering the resultant carbon dioxide) we need to be VERY careful not to accept that dead end.
      Insulation, conservation and REDUCING demand will all have more favourable co-benefit outcomes than further subsidy to fossil fuel interests. And my arithmetic makes it more like 31% of UK crude exported beyond Europe but that is irrelevant if you accept any of the other careful points Keith is making.

      1. henry hooper says:

        Whilst cars still need petrol, aircraft need A1, we use plastics, we have makeup etc etc and we have no alternatives to hydrocarbons, we’re at an impasse.
        We need the alternatives PDQ. Until then there’s no point – unless of course you want ban the usage of cars, trucks and lorries for example. If you believe thats realistic then you’re mad.
        Well i was only referencing the articles arithmetic, but glad to note you think the content is nonsense too

        1. Billco says:

          Henry, of course we will have to do without cars, foreign holidays by plane, food and goods imported from abroad when they can be created domestically, etc. That’s the whole point. Governments just now (and their peoples, to be fair) are like alcoholics being told that, for the good of their health, they will no longer have access to alcohol. They are now scrambling around trying to find something else to get drunk on. The whole point is to stop getting drunk! A response to Climate Change requires major social upheaval, which is why no-one is willing to get the ball rolling – we enjoy our current lifestyles too much, myself included. However, make no mistake, change will happen, either voluntarily or imposed upon us by circumstance. Better the former than the latter!

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            I’m a great believer that change is driven by circumstance (‘history’) rather than by design (‘God’ or ‘man’). The latter ideology is sometimes referred to by historians as ‘the transcendental pretence’.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    Current plans for continued economic growth by world governments, regardless of what they say at COP26-COP36, gives a new meaning to net zero by 2050 – it’ll be net zero humans!

  3. Derek says:

    Why’s everyone talking about splitting hydrogen from water? Split it from urine instead; that bonds are weaker and it’s a resource that isn’t exploited enough. It can be done with small solar and wind plants at sewage farms, too.

  4. Observer says:

    There appears to be a widespread belief that all that is lacking to achieve something like global net zero in the next couple of decades is political will. Twitter is full of humanities graduates talking up “renewables” and “degrowth” with little understanding of the technical, social and geopolitical barriers to this imagined future. Anyone who points this out is dismissed as a bad faith actor or treated to the usual litany of slogans.

    Some fantasise that Scottish independence will somehow change the climate calculus, without ever explaining why.

    The IEA suggestion that the North Sea should be some kind of moral exemplar akin to unilateral nuclear disarmament looks like flattery to me.

    Certainly all governments should be investing and researching in technologies which can decouple economic and social development from environmental destruction. Unfortunately those who worry most about climate change don’t seem well qualified to assess, let alone invent, such technologies.

    1. Colin Robinson says:


    2. Thanks ‘Observer’ – I don’t think the IEA is suggesting that the North Sea should be some kind of ‘moral exemplar’, in fact the entire point they – and the author – make is that “to meet our climate target of limiting global heating to 1.5ºC, oil, gas and coal use will all need to fall rapidly to the extent that no new oil, gas or coal developments should now occur.”

      It is precisely the universality of that statement that you have missed or somehow reversed into it being particular.

      You comment suggests that there are technical fixes to our climate crisis. Can you enlighten us on what these are?

      You write that: “those who worry most about climate change don’t seem well qualified to assess, let alone invent, such technologies.”

      Can I ask how you get this qualification to invent these technologies, and what they are? Also are you qualified to invent them and have you started? Please send drawings.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Of course, there are technical fixes. Resetting our energy production in ways that make it increasingly less reliant on fossil fuels is one such technical fix. It simply isn’t the case that the world will inevitably end if the Scottish electorate doesn’t vote for the independence of its government from the UK government.

        And it’s the very ‘universality’ of the required reset that makes the development of the Cambo field a mere drop in the ocean (pun intended). Such is the narrative of hopelessness that the prophets of doom are spinning that any ‘local’ action we might take appears pointless. Decommissioning the Cambo field becomes as insignificant to the global situation as me washing out and recycling my Marmite jar. It becomes mere virtue-signaling.

        1. Sorry – the question was to ‘Observer’ – unless you and he are the same person?

        2. Keith Alexander says:

          Hi Colin. “X is only a small % of emissions so it’s pointless to do anything about it” is a very common discourse of delay[1], but since global emissions are made up of many small percentages, the problem can only be solved if everyone regards their own contributions as significant, small though they may be at global scale. As the IPCC say, every action matters, every choice matters, every year matters, every fraction of a degree matters.

          [1] https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-how-discourses-of-delay-are-used-to-slow-climate-action

  5. John Monro says:

    Greta Thunberg says “follow the science”, in this she is following many others, including myself, that have been saying this for the last twenty years. The science tells us very clearly, well explained by George Monbiot in the Guardian in 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/07/much-worlds-fossil-fuel-reserve-must-stay-buried-prevent-climate-change-study-says . Because we haven’t paid the slightest bit of notice, these figures will need to be adjusted even more dramatically downwards, because we have already exploited a good proportion of this supposedly unusable oil, gas and coal. In truth, I don’t think Glasgow will achieve anything much, any more than Paris did. Humanity has stepped on board a conveyor belt of history that started in the UK in late 1700s, which is for ever speeding up and it’s going to be too painful to voluntarily jump off. Ultimately, there will be an end, and it’ll look something like what’s happening in Kabul airport right now, multiplied by many orders of magnitude. Cheers!!

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      That’s the prophetic narrative, John: we’re a’ for the Big Fire.

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