Grant Shapps, the UK energy secretary, has reassured industry leaders that the government remains “absolutely committed” to hitting its net zero carbon targets by 2050, in spite of recent controversy over its intentions.
Shapps told bosses of energy companies at a summit in Downing Street on Wednesday that he wanted them to invest in renewables — including solar, tidal, wind and nuclear — alongside putting money into North Sea oil and gas.
Rishi Sunak’s government has been criticised in recent days for its plan to “max out” hydrocarbons in the North Sea and over the prime minister’s promise to be “on the side” of motorists.
But Shapps opened the meeting by telling company bosses: “For the avoidance of doubt, we are absolutely committed to net zero in 2050 but we will do it in a pragmatic way.”
The minister told the Financial Times that the government would meet its goals in a “realistic and rational way”, and that included pumping oil and gas from the North Sea during a transition to net zero.
Shapps said he told energy groups that the alternative would be to sacrifice jobs and tax revenues from the North Sea while importing oil and gas from other countries.
“Not extracting oil and gas would be mad,” he said, claiming that the Labour opposition had made a serious mistake in planning to stop issuing oil and gas licences.
Asked whether energy companies were confused by some of the language used by Sunak in recent days, Shapps said: “Anyone who listened closely would know we are still signed up to meeting net zero targets.”
He also told bosses that he would support an imminent report by Nick Winser, an energy sector veteran, which will offer ways to speed up the connection of new projects from 14 years to seven.
Among those who sent representatives to the meeting were oil and gas companies Shell and Harbour Energy; RWE, the UK’s largest power producer; and household supplier Scottish Power.
The gathering follows a challenging time for relations between the government and some parts of the energy sector.
The oil and gas industry and electricity producers were dismayed at windfall taxes introduced last year as energy prices leapt in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And while the oil and gas sector has been cheered by the government’s support for new licences, signs of a change in tone over green policies have made some clean energy investors nervous.
Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of trade group Energy UK, last month described the mood in the energy sector as “grim”.
On Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, she wrote that she was “delighted” that Shapps “was crystal clear that energy security and net zero are two sides of the same coin”.
She added: “Our industry’s united view is that achieving net zero and energy security go hand in hand, and we welcome the secretary of state’s renewed commitment to that.”
Energy executives pushed the minister to offer more support to the offshore wind sector, as well as removing barriers to investment.
Companies have long urged the government to speed up the timeframes for gaining planning permission so that wind turbines and new electricity cables can be developed more quickly.
Tom Glover, UK country chair for RWE, which aims to invest up to £15bn in the UK by 2030, said it was “reassuring” to hear Shapps’s commitment to net zero.
“We emphasised the need for more and regular engagement between government and industry,” he added.