Pressure is building for the UK government to reconsider plans to open the Cambo oil field in the North Sea, off the coast of Scotland.

The plans for the new oil site have been under consideration by regulators since June, but the issue garnered international attention in the run-up to the world’s biggest climate summit, COP26, which was hosted in the Scottish city of Glasgow earlier this month.

With the spotlight on the UK and whether the government would be able to persuade global leaders to take climate change seriously, many campaigners and commentators asked how it could do that while in the process of considering a major new fossil fuel project.

The Cambo oil field is thought to contain the equivalent of 800 million barrels of oil — and campaigners estimate the project will produce climate pollution equal to 18  coal-fired power plants per year, releasing 132 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime.

A decision is due to be made by the UK’s Oil and Gas Authority, a regulatory body overseen by the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, over whether it can be developed. If approved, drilling could start as early as 2022 and the site would be expected to produce oil and gas for 25 years.

Local climate campaigners who make up the Stop Cambo coalition, along with environmental NGOs including Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth, and climate law nonprofit ClientEarth, have been making noise about the project for months.

Activists are urging the government to halt the development on the basis that promoting more oil and gas production will have dangerous consequences for the planet, flying in the face of targets to prevent global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the UK’s own targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Global Citizen has joined the campaign too and is calling on Global Citizens to send an urgent email to the UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to call on him to intervene and stop the project from going ahead. You can send an email by clicking here.

Here’s what you need to know about the proposals and what climate campaigners say about them.

What Is the Cambo Oil Field?

The Cambo oil field is situated about 75 miles (125km) to the west of the Shetland Islands, a group of islands north of Scotland. It is the second largest undeveloped oil field in the UK continental shelf (meaning the sea around the UK the country has rights to), and is estimated to contain 800 million barrels of oil.

Plans to develop the site have been put forward by energy company Siccar Point Energy and the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which owns a 30% stake in the project.

Details about the project reveal that the companies expect to extract between 150-170 million barrels of oil in the first phase of the development — and expect that it will produce oil and gas for 25 years from 2025 onwards.

The potential for the site has been known for some time. Approval for developing new oil sites can take decades, according to an expert speaking to the BBC, and the original licence for exploration at Cambo was granted back in 2001.

But even though the licence was only granted for the companies involved to see if there was oil there — not to actually start drilling — the fact that it dates back so far has created an important “loophole” that campaigners say helps it avoid scrutiny against climate targets. Crucially, the 2001 exploration licence pre-dates initiatives associated with recent climate targets and the UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target.

In fact, in March this year the government announced that it was introducing a “climate compatibility checkpoint” that would ensure any future oil licences awarded would have to be “aligned with wider climate objectives, including the UK’s legal target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.”

But it only applies to projects not yet granted an initial licence — so the Cambo project does not have to meet this “climate compatibility checkpoint”, the Guardian reported in June.

Supporters of the Cambo project say that it will provide jobs to the area. The Conservative member of parliament (MP) for Dumfries and Galloway and Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, has said “we 100% should open the Cambo oil field.”

He added it was "foolish to think that we can just run away from oil and gas.”

Jonathan Roger, the chief executive of Siccar Point Energy, told the Independent in July that the development “supports the country’s energy transition, maintaining secure UK supply and creating more than 1,000 direct UK jobs and thousands more in the supply chain.”

3 Things to Know About the Cambo Oil Field

  • The site contains an estimated 800 million barrels of oil and the plan is to extract up to 170 million barrels in the first phase of the project alone. 
  • Campaigners calculate drilling the oil field will lead to annual carbon emissions equivalent to running 18 coal mines. 
  • In August 80,000 people signed a petition calling on ministers to reject the plans. 

What Do Campaigners and Scientists Say?

Climate scientists and campaigners for a just transition to renewable energy are clear: there is no way the site can go ahead and be in line with climate targets intended to curb dangerous climate change.

The International Energy Agency, an inter-governmental body that assesses global energy policies, said no new oil and gas fields can factor in a pathway to achieving net zero in the energy sector by 2050 in a major analysis published in May.

Dr. James Hansen, a leading climate scientist who formerly worked for NASA and warned of climate change in the 1980s, said of the Cambo proposals: “The UK government simply cannot aspire to international leadership on climate if its ministers blithely press forward on major fossil fuel projects.”

Pressure has been building on politicians to take a stance on the issue — and on Nov. 16 the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said it should not go ahead after being challenged by activists, but the authority to decide still lies with the UK government.

Meanwhile campaign groups have drummed up support in the fight against the oil field.   Friends of the Earth delivered a petition with 80,000 signatures calling for the project not to go ahead to Downing Street in August, and Greenpeace has threatened legal action over the Cambo field.

Grassroots activists have helped push the issue forward by grabbing media attention too. On Oct. 14, Stop Cambo youth activists took to the stage during a panel on climate change hosted by TED talks in Edinburgh, which featured the CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden. They carried a banner saying “no future in fossil fuels.”

Lauren MacDonald, a Glasgow-based climate activist involved in the Stop Cambo campaign, was on the panel and was expected to ask a pre-written question, but instead confronted Van Beurden about the plans and the company’s role in climate change in a video that went viral.

Activists took the Stop Cambo message to COP26 as well — protesting outside the summit and the UK government’s hub at the conference, and staging a mock ceremony on a Glasgow street where “the Queen” turned off a tap representing turning off the oil tap.

In October, Greenpeace UK activists installed an oil-splattered statue of Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Downing Street, intended to show his legacy if the Cambo field goes ahead. The plaque reads “Cambo oilfield: Boris Johnson’s monumental climate failure.”

What Can You Do to Help?

Make your voice heard by emailing business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng urging him to stop the oil field going ahead.

The campaign group Stop Cambo also has six different ways you can help take action listed on their website too, including information about how to join in local campaign groups, email your MP, and raise awareness on social media.

Friends of the Earth is also collecting signatures for another open letter calling on ministers to reject the plans, and Greenpeace UK has an ongoing petition against all future oil drilling in the North Sea. 

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Stop Cambo: What to Know About the Planned UK Oil Field and the Campaign Against It

By Helen Lock