The gigantic North Sea oil field that could be Britain’s last

north sea oil and gas – Frode Koppang/Alamy Stock Photo

Roughly 80 miles west of the Shetland Islands, on the edges of the North Atlantic, the biggest undeveloped oil field in UK waters sits deep beneath the waves.

Rosebank contains an expected 300 million barrels of recoverable oil, though the haul could end up being as much as 500 million barrels by some estimates.

A licensing decision for the field, which is being developed by Norwegian state-owned giant Equinor, is expected to be issued by regulators this month.

It has set up a key acid test for the North Sea’s future, with supporters and critics alike watching closely to see what the Government decides.

If it is approved, Rosebank could be the last new oil development in British North Sea history.

Labour, who currently hold a sizeable lead in the polls, is planning a blanket ban on all new oil and gas development if the party wins power.

Rosebank would not be affected by Labour’s ban, as the licence – if approved – would be granted before it comes into force. But it has become a microcosm of the wider issues at stake.

The scheme is described as either reckless or vital – depending on who you ask.

If approved, the field would begin production in late 2026 and continue through 2050. At its peak, it would supply around 70,000 barrels of oil per day – or 8pc of the UK’s total needs – and 60 million cubic feet of gas per day.

Equinor expects Rosebank to add £24bn to the UK economy and create 1,200 UK jobs at its peak, including 255 permanent positions with the company.

However, climate campaigners say the project breaches UK net-zero targets, will do little for household energy bills or energy security because 80pc of its production will go to refineries abroad, and will require huge public subsidies.

“If we want a liveable climate, we can’t allow any new oil and gas projects or licences,” the group Stop Rosebank says.

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

Instead of drilling new oil and gas wells, Labour sources say, the UK should make “the most efficient use” of its existing reserves.

At the same time, Labour has vowed to borrow £28bn per year to plough into renewable energy schemes such as wind and solar farms, which it says will generate tens of thousands of jobs.

Sir Keir Starmer has often criticised Margaret Thatcher’s “callous” decision to shut dozens of British coal mines during the 1980s, which he blames for the economic malaise in former pit towns.

The Labour leader claims he will not repeat the same mistake twice and will preserve jobs in the North Sea oil and gas industry as the country switches to renewable energy.

“There are many people in well-paid, secure jobs in oil and gas who are anxious about what happens if we transition,” he told business leaders at a British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) conference last month.

“The worst thing we can do is not take this seriously. The worst thing you can do is not engage with them, [not] have a plan which everybody has confidence in and do what happened at the end of coal mining, which was to essentially say to people ‘I’m sorry… we’re moving on, you’d better get on your bike’.

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

Yet Equinor and industry representatives say investment in renewable energy will not be enough to meet Britain’s immediate energy needs.

They insist that Rosebank and schemes like it are accounted for in Britain’s “carbon budget” and will make a vital contribution towards British and European energy security in the wake of the Ukraine war.

And while much of the oil produced will go to the Continent, it is then sent back to Britain in refined form.

Domestic production is particularly important to the UK, industry bosses argue, because the UK still depends on fossil fuels for three-quarters of its energy needs. It produces roughly half of its oil and gas supplies domestically.

The North Sea is already in natural decline, with its remaining reserves becoming harder and more expensive to extract.

Meanwhile the share of fossil fuels in the energy mix is falling gradually, meaning we will need to import more over the coming years to meet demand.

New wells are therefore needed to keep the oil flowing and prevent Britain becoming ever more dependent on imports, argues David Whitehouse, chief executive of lobby group Offshore Energies UK.

“While we still use oil and gas in the UK, every barrel we choose not to produce here in the UK will simply come from somewhere else,” he adds.

“That means we will be exporting our jobs. It means we’re importing oil and gas from other countries which do not have that same commitment to climate change that we have.

“So from my perspective, it is absolutely consistent with the IEA [recommendations] that we continue to develop domestic oil and gas.”

He says UK producers are already taking bigger steps than their global counterparts to cut the emissions from extraction.

For example, at Rosebank Equinor has vowed to use a floating production vessel that can eventually be fully electrified – meaning it could be powered by wind energy.

“This is a sector which is absolutely looking to make sure ours is the cleanest oil produced globally,” Whitehouse adds.

“There’s a huge amount of effort going on with the industry to deliver on that.”

The North Sea Transition Deal announced by the Government in 2021 aims to strike a balance, by helping the industry cut emissions while gradually retraining staff for jobs in green energy.

However, Offshore Energies UK has predicted that a blanket ban on all new oil and gas development would send North Sea oil production plummeting by 60pc by 2033, costing the industry at least 45,000 jobs.

It has put Sir Keir under pressure to explain how Labour’s reported proposal will not lead to a jobs bloodbath, with the party’s union backers among those publicly expressing concerns.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, which represents oil rig workers, says the Labour leader’s proposals so far lack vital details.

“We cannot have a repeat of the devastation wrought on workers and their communities by the closure of the coal mines,” she said this week.

As a decision on Rosebank approaches, Sir Keir will be forced to choose a side.

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