The enormous North Sea oil field that might represent Britain’s final reservoir.

As Labour waits in the wings, the fate of Britain’s fossil fuel resources remains uncertain.

Approximately 80 miles west of the Shetland Islands, at the frontier of the North Atlantic, the largest untouched oil field in UK territory lies submerged deep beneath the ocean surface.

The Rosebank field is expected to hold 300 million barrels of recoverable oil, although some estimations project the potential yield could reach up to 500 million barrels.

Equinor, the Norwegian state-owned oil behemoth developing the field, anticipates receiving a licensing decision from regulators this month.

This situation has set the stage for a crucial litmus test for the future of the North Sea, as both proponents and detractors are keenly observing the government’s impending decision.

Should it gain approval, Rosebank could mark the final chapter in new oil development in the British sector of the North Sea.

The Labour Party, which is currently enjoying a considerable lead in the polls, has plans to impose a comprehensive ban on all new oil and gas development should they ascend to power.

However, the proposed ban would not affect Rosebank, as its license—if approved—would be issued before the ban takes effect. Nevertheless, Rosebank has emerged as a symbolic case reflecting the broader issues at play.

Depending on the perspective of the person you consult, the project is characterized as either dangerously imprudent or indispensably crucial.

If the green light is given, production at the field would kick off in late 2026 and sustain through 2050. In its prime, it’s expected to deliver approximately 70,000 barrels of oil daily, satisfying around 8% of the UK’s total demand, along with 60 million cubic feet of gas each day.

Equinor projects that the Rosebank field will contribute an estimated £24 billion to the UK economy and, at its height, create 1,200 jobs in the UK, including 255 ongoing positions within the company itself.

In contrast, environmental activists argue that the initiative undermines UK’s net-zero targets, contributes minimally to household energy costs or energy security given that 80% of its output will be directed to overseas refineries, and will necessitate substantial public financial support.

“We can’t permit any new oil and gas projects or licenses if we aim for a sustainable climate,” argues the activist group Stop Rosebank.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow energy secretary and former party leader, has publicly resisted all new exploration for similar reasons.

Labour insiders suggest that the UK should prioritize “the most efficient use” of its existing reserves instead of drilling new oil and gas wells.

Simultaneously, Labour pledges to borrow £28 billion annually to invest in renewable energy projects, including wind and solar farms, which they claim will generate tens of thousands of jobs.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has frequently rebuked Margaret Thatcher’s “heartless” decision to close many British coal mines in the 1980s, which he holds responsible for the economic stagnation in former mining communities.

Starmer asserts that he won’t repeat the same error and will safeguard jobs in the North Sea oil and gas industry as the country transitions to renewable energy.

“Many individuals in secure, well-paid jobs within the oil and gas sector are apprehensive about the transition,” he addressed business leaders at a British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) conference the previous month.

“The gravest mistake we can make is to not take this seriously. The worst thing you can do is not engage with them, [not] have a plan which everyone trusts and do what happened at the end of coal mining, which was to basically tell people ‘I’m sorry… we’re moving on, you’d better get on your bike’.

“The repercussions of that are still felt in communities across the nation and we must never, ever make that mistake again.”

Nonetheless, Equinor and industry spokespeople argue that investments in renewable energy alone won’t be sufficient to satisfy Britain’s immediate energy requirements.

Proponents maintain that initiatives like Rosebank are included in the UK’s “carbon budget” and will play a crucial role in ensuring energy security for both the UK and Europe following the conflict in Ukraine.

Even though a significant amount of the oil obtained will be shipped to mainland Europe, it will be returned to the UK in its processed form.

Industry leaders contend that domestic production is especially crucial for the UK since it still relies on fossil fuels for 75% of its energy requirements. Roughly half of its oil and gas supplies are produced domestically.

With the North Sea reserves naturally dwindling and the extraction of remaining resources becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, new wells are essential to sustain the flow of oil and prevent the UK from growing even more reliant on imports, argues David Whitehouse, CEO of advocacy group Offshore Energies UK.

The percentage of fossil fuels in the energy mix is slowly reducing, which suggests a rising need to import more in the coming years to satisfy demand.

“As long as the UK continues to use oil and gas, each barrel we decide not to produce domestically will simply be sourced from elsewhere,” he adds.

“This implies that we will be exporting our jobs and importing oil and gas from countries lacking our commitment to tackling climate change. Therefore, I firmly believe it aligns with the IEA [recommendations] to persist in developing our domestic oil and gas resources.”

Whitehouse asserts that UK producers are already making greater strides than their international equivalents to reduce emissions associated with extraction.

For instance, at Rosebank, Equinor has committed to utilizing a floating production ship capable of being completely electrified in the future, implying that it could be powered by wind energy.

“This is an industry that is utterly committed to ensuring our oil is the cleanest produced worldwide,” comments Whitehouse.

“A tremendous amount of work is being undertaken within the industry to achieve this goal.”

The North Sea Transition Deal, announced by the government in 2021, is designed to create equilibrium by aiding the industry in reducing emissions while progressively retraining employees for roles in the renewable energy sector.

However, Offshore Energies UK has forecasted that a comprehensive ban on all new oil and gas development would cause North Sea oil production to decrease by 60% by 2033, leading to a loss of at least 45,000 jobs in the industry.

The organization has pressured Sir Keir to clarify how the Labour Party’s purported plan will not result in a massive loss of jobs, with the party’s union supporters among those voicing public apprehension.

Sharon Graham, the General Secretary of Unite, which represents oil rig workers, has said that the proposals by the Labour leader are missing crucial specifics so far.

“We cannot allow a repeat of the destruction caused to workers and their communities by the closure of the coal mines,” she stated this week.

As the decision regarding Rosebank looms, Sir Keir will inevitably be compelled to pick a stance.

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