Rishi Sunak's planned expansion was little more than a political gesture, says Lord Browne. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Former BP chief Lord Browne said Rishi Sunak's decision to expand North Sea drilling “will make no difference” to Britain's energy security and is “symbolic.”
Lord Browne, who is now among Rishi Sunak's top scientific advisers, said he was “surprised” by the Prime Minister's decision to issue new North Sea drilling licenses every year.
Speaking in Dubai, where he was attending the Cop28 climate talks, Lord Brown said the UK's continental shelf was dying as an oil and gas resource and suggested Mr Sunak's planned expansion was little more than a political gesture.
He told The Telegraph: “I always thought that most of the North Sea and [Atlantic] west of Shetland was coming to an end. So I was quite surprised by this plan. I think it's more symbolic than real.
“Someone wants to emphasize that there is freedom of choice here. This will not affect the volumes detected, nor even the amount of carbon dioxide released if used.”
North Sea drillers face not only dwindling reserves, but also a highly unstable political environment. In the last two years alone, offshore taxes have risen from 40% to 75%, with Labor promising even more if they win the upcoming election.
Lord Brown suggested that British offshore operators are now simply planning to make as much money as possible money and then leave.
“This is not an industry that will invest the same amount of money every year… People understand that when governments become unreliable, it will stop investment.
“And if there is nothing left to do [there is no oil and gas left], then people will naturally say: okay – now we are in the endgame. Let's just take as much money as we can.”
The industry disagrees. Mike Tholen of Offshore Energies UK believes the North Sea is a “foundation for energy security” and a platform for building a renewables sector.
However, Lord Browne's comments carry weight given his reputation. as is perhaps the more influential former BP CEO.
They are even more striking given Lord Browne's current role as chairman of the Government's Science and Technology Council, the group of Britain's most senior scientists appointed to advise Rishi Sunak. However, they do not appear to have been consulted on this matter.
Lord Brown led BP between 1995 and 2007, during a period of fossil fuel expansion so successful that he became known as the industry's “Sun King”. However, the 75-year-old no longer considers himself an “oil and gas man” and instead says he is now focused on investing in green energy.
“I resigned as CEO of BP in 2007. But even when I was at BP, I tried to say that energy is actually changing.
“I would say that over the last 16 years I have evolved into a climate change investor. I don’t feel like an oil and gas guy.”
This announcement may surprise his former colleagues, many of whom remain at BP.
Lord Browne's links to oil and gas go back to his childhood, when his father was an executive at Anglo-Persian Oil (now BP) and the family lived in Iran. His book Beyond Business describes how watching a giant fire rage after an oil well exploded in 1958 inspired him to enter the industry.
In 1966, a graduate physicist, the then John Brown followed his father . at BP, taking on exploration and production responsibilities around the world before eventually leading BP's exploration division.
He oversaw the discovery and production of billions of barrels of oil and gas – but that, he says, It's all over now.
“We have to do something about climate change.”
His Damascus transformation began at BP with a controversial attempt to rebrand the company as Beyond Petroleum. BP managers are now generally hesitant about the rebrand, but the core goal of growing the company in a post-fossil fuel era has survived numerous leadership changes.
Lord Brown said it was linked to climate science. the changes have become even more convincing.
“We are dealing with something that most likely poses an existential threat to humanity. If we don't change our path, global temperatures by 2100 will be 3 degrees warmer than today.
“It changes where people can live, where crops can be grown, and living conditions for so many people, perhaps in fatal ways. The obvious answer is to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”
There are no signs yet that this will happen. Annual global greenhouse gas emissions have risen from the equivalent of 33 billion tonnes of CO2 in 1990 (the benchmark year of the COP conference) to 54 billion tonnes last year with no sign of abating.
Some argue that annual UN conferences are simply creating the appearance of action where none exists in order to reassure an increasingly anxious public.
Conferences are now huge: Lord Browne is among the 70,000 people who attended the meeting in Dubai. Leaks to the BBC included claims that UAE officials were planning to use the conference as an opportunity to seal oil and gas deals.
If the cop is truly tackling the problem of fossil fuel emissions, will future generations view it as the most big failure of the UN?
Lord Brown counters: “It is easy to say that these UN police conferences are just useless talk… but some of them actually achieve something. I think the one in Paris really achieved something by setting targets for countries. Whether we achieve our goals is another matter.”
At the Paris talks in 2015, 196 countries signed a legally binding agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with the goal of keeping it below 1. 5°C. In practice, this would mean greenhouse gas emissions peaking no later than 2025 and falling by 43% by 2030. There are no signs of achieving any goal.
Oil and gas companies, including BP, which had sought to focus more on renewable energy, subsequently switched back to oil and gas.
Lord Brown acknowledges the dilemma. “These publicly listed companies have shareholders who are looking at the earnings available right now. They do exactly what investors tell them to do, which is to maximize profits based on their skills.”
Oil and gas companies always prefer pleasing investors to saving the planet, he says, so governments must create rules and incentives to cut emissions. In his opinion, things are going terribly wrong for them.
“I think the world has failed. I wouldn't blame the police negotiations – it's just a series of meetings, a conference. But the world failed because it didn't find the right incentives to convince people to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”
Lord Brown left BP in 2007 after he committed perjury in a British court after a British tabloid “outed” him as gay. Lord Browne described the incident as a “serious error of judgement”.
However, after all these years, the people and policies he brought to the table are still leading the company today.
Tony Hayward, mentored by Lord Browne as his successor, ended his term early due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Next was Bob Dudley, another executive promoted by Lord Browne.
Mr Dudley stepped down in 2020 and was replaced by Bernard Looney, another of Lord Browne's favourites. He was forced to leave after he failed to disclose details of his relationships with several colleagues. Interim chief executive Murray Auchincloss was also a protégé of Lord Browne.
What is striking is that all four have broadly followed the “beyond oil” path outlined by Lord Brown two decades ago.
What advice does he give to BP now? “I think they need to recognize that there are many voices and that they don't need to be arrogant.
“Companies have no right to exist. They only exist when people buy their product. They must remember this and respect what people say, keeping in mind the need to comply with regulation, reduce CO2 emissions and be part of society.
“It would be wrong for a company to say: “We are here, you need us, and there is nothing you can do about it.” In the end, this is not true, customers will go elsewhere.”