A FORMER Tory cabinet minister has said Rishi Sunak’s plans to maximise North Sea oil and gas production give the impression he is “not being serious” about tackling climate change.

Tory MP Alok Sharma, who was president of the international Cop26 climate summit hosted by the UK, said he will not support the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill when MPs vote on it later.

He said the legislation is a “smoke and mirrors” exercise which reinforces the perception that the UK is “rowing back from climate action”.

The bill will require the industry regulator to run annual rounds for new oil and gas licences, subject to stringent new emissions and imports tests.

Currently licensing rounds are run when the North Sea Transition Authority (NTSA) decides it is necessary.

The Government claims the introduction of regular licensing for exploration will increase certainty, investor confidence and make the UK more energy-independent.

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But the legislation has already triggered the resignation of former net zero tsar Chris Skidmore as a Tory MP.

Sharma said the legislation is a “total distraction” and “a smoke and mirrors bill which frankly changes nothing” except to further damage the UK’s international reputation on climate action.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What this bill does do is reinforce that unfortunate perception about the UK rowing back from climate action – we saw this last autumn with the chopping and changing of some policies – and actually not being serious about meeting our international commitments.”

He said that, at the Cop28 summit in December, the UK signed up to a global plan to transition away from fossil fuels but “this bill is about doubling down on granting more oil and gas production licences”.

The National: Alok Sharma

“It’s actually the opposite of what we agreed to do internationally, so I won’t be supporting it.”

Sharma said the Climate Change Committee has been “pretty clear that continued expansion of new oil and gas reserves is inconsistent with our climate commitments”.

A group of 30 politicians, including Skidmore and Lord Goldsmith, have also written to Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho urging her and the Government to drop the bill, saying that it is “diametrically opposed” to the global consensus of moving away from fossil fuels.

They said it will not achieve the Government’s aim of improving energy security as it cannot control the intentions of private companies who wish to sell the oil abroad.

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Further North Sea oil and gas development would only damage the UK’s reputation on climate change, harm marine wildlife and enrich fossil fuel companies, the group said.

Instead, the UK Government should increase the supply of renewables and energy efficiency measures, it added.

The legislation, coupled with Sunak’s decision to delay transitioning away from petrol and diesel cars and gas-fired boilers – which he said would save consumers money – has caused unease among Tory environmentalists.

Skidmore, who led a Government review of net zero, announced on Friday that he would stand down as he said the Prime Minister’s environmental stance is “wrong and will cause future harm”.

The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill will have its first Commons test on Monday night.

Downing Street declined to say whether the aim of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is to increase the number of licences granted.

“I’m not going to speculate on whether more licences will be granted, that’s a decision partly for the companies themselves,” Sunak’s spokesman told journalists.

Challenged over the fact the oil will be sold abroad rather than reserved for the domestic market, the official argued it is “preferable to have an international market which has more oil and gas from the UK and other countries which are stable, which are not authoritarian regimes”.