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Tory backlash as Rishi Sunak vows to ‘max out’ North Sea oil and gas reserves

Senior Tories have condemned Rishi Sunak after he said intends to “max out” the North Sea oil and gas reserves in a further example of his administration backsliding on the environment.

The Prime Minister announced on Monday that his Government will grant potentially hundreds of new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea in a dramatic departure from the Government’s stance on fossil fuels.

His decision has sparked deep divisions within the Tory party with the moderate wing of the party deeply concerned over Mr Sunak’s sharp retreat from the green agenda.

Speaking during a visit to Aberdeen, the Prime Minister said: “My view is we should max out the opportunities that we have in the North Sea because that’s good for our energy security, it’s good for jobs – particularly here in Scotland – but it’s also good for the climate, because the alternative is shipping energy here from halfway around the world with three or four times the carbon emissions.

“So, any which way you look at it, the right thing to do is to invest and to back our North Sea and that’s what we’re doing.”

But Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister, who chaired the Independent Government Review on Net Zero, warned the move puts the UK “on the wrong side of history”.

The Tory MP said: “This is the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves.

He also warned that voters will “vote with their feet at the next general election” and would favour “parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment”. Mr Skidmore added that he would seeking to hold an emergency debate on the matter as soon as Parliament returns.

i understands that moderate Conservatives will be rallying in the coming weeks ahead of the return of Parliament in a bid to push against the Prime Minister move away from policies, such as the Net Zero commitment.

Former Tory minister Baroness Altmann told i that she supported the move towards greater energy security in the wake of the Ukraine war, but she added the party “must be vigilant that this is not a slippery slope towards rowing back from our support for Net Zero and protection of nature”.

“We have a duty to protect the planet and, if a leading country like the UK starts to pull back, the rest of the world may backtrack or fail to advance in the way that is needed,” she said.

The Conservative Environment Network, which represents a caucus of 150 Tory MPs, added its voice to the concerns, warning: “As long as we heavily rely on fossil fuels, the UK will be vulnerable to price shocks from volatile international markets. The best way to secure our energy supply and cut people’s bills is to accelerate homegrown renewables.”

Downing Street insisted that the additional licences would be “entirely compatible” with the UK’s commitments to meeting its 2050 Net Zero target.

Earlier in the day, Mr Sunak said: “If we’re going to need it, far better to have it here at home rather than shipping it here from half way around the world with two, three, four times, the amount of carbon emissions versus the oil and gas we have here at home.”

The move was welcomed by former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who said that the Government is “being honest about what we have to do” to reach net zero.

He told Sky News: “These carbon targets, we’re sort of sloping our shoulders and passing them on to other people by buying gas at higher prices [from other countries].

“We need to have energy security in the UK, and so that means the North Sea […] It’s far better that we’re honest about that, we drill for that here, because in essence, that’s the position that we know what we’re producing, but we’re owning it as well.”

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