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New oil and gas licences threaten protected ocean habitats

Press Release Date: August 4, 2023



Daisy Brickhill | email: dbrickhill@oceana.org

Forty percent of the new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea announced this week are within marine protected areas, with the potential to cause devastation to wildlife and habitats that are vital to ocean health, campaigners say. A group – convened by the NGO Oceana and including a range of concerned organisations from Greenpeace UK and the RSPB to Patagonia and the Institute of Fisheries Management – has issued an open letter to the prime minister urging him to reconsider.

The government announced this week that it will be issuing 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas in the autumn. While this has attracted criticism because of how it will exacerbate the climate crisis, NGOs Oceana, Uplift and others are also raising the alarm on the harmful impacts for UK seas.

As well as the risk of large-scale spills that would decimate marine ecosystems, these developments cause low-level but high-frequency oil spillages that are combined with microplastics and other toxic chemicals to create cocktail of pollutants that would threaten some of the UK’s most iconic sea life – from harbour porpoises to puffins – the group says.

The direct destruction of seabed habitats also has wide-reaching impacts for marine ecosystems. Habitats such as deep-sea sponge communities and ancient coral reefs, many of which are vital nurseries and spawning grounds for commercially important fish populations, could be entirely destroyed.

Even the exploration phase, before any drilling takes place, can severely impact marine wildlife, according to the group. Seismic airgun surveys – which are used almost exclusively in offshore oil and gas exploration – emit an ear-splitting noise that is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. These blasts, which affect seals, dolphins, fish and other wildlife, can cause feeding disruption and even death.

The marine protected areas that could be impacted by the new fossil fuel developments include: 

  • The North Norfolk Coast Special Protected Area, which is a breeding site for a number of species of tern, including the common tern nicknamed the ‘sea-swallow’ because of their long tails.
  • The Wash and North Norfolk Coast Special Area of Conservation, which is protected habitat for harbour seals
  • The Foula Special Protected Area, off the coast of Shetland, home to puffins and guillemots. 
  • The Liverpool Bay Special Protected Area, where the red-throated diver and common scoter spend the winter.
  • The Southern North Sea Special Area of Conservation, which is protected for harbour porpoises.

As a member of the Global Ocean Alliance the UK has committed to the ‘30 by 30’ target, which aims to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030, through a network of marine protected areas. 
Nor will the new licences provide the UK with an affordable, secure supply of energy, the campaigners point out. Hundreds of licences have been issued in the past decade, but it has only led to a handful of producing fields, and even the regulator issuing these licences says it will only make a difference to gas production “around the edges”.

In addition, the majority of what’s left in the North Sea is oil not gas, 80% of which gets exported. What little gas is produced won’t lower energy costs, since it will be sold back to the UK at market price, a fact that government ministers have admitted.

Analysis by Uplift reveals that, even if none of the gas produced was exported, new fields would supply an absolute maximum of an additional three weeks of gas per year to the UK.

Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director and Vice President of Oceana in the UK said: “The licensing of new oil and gas fields in and around marine protected areas is a wanton act of environmental vandalism, ignoring both the government’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis and protect nature. The UK’s beautiful and unique marine life, from whales and dolphins to rare deep-sea sponges, should not be up for sale to Big Oil – experts in polluting our air and water.

Marine protected areas are vital havens for our extraordinary sea life – calling an area ‘protected’ and then licencing these highly destructive developments is disingenuous ‘blue wash’.

Scotland is all too familiar with the devastation of oil spills, with the Braer oil disaster a recent memory of the destruction caused to marine life, coastal ecosystems and local communities that depend on thriving seas.

The extreme marine heatwaves that ripped through our seas just weeks ago, which scientists warn could lead to mass die-offs of ocean life, show just how crucial these protected areas are to foster resilience in our beleaguered seas. Our ocean, which has acted as our heat shield until now – is reaching the limits of its endurance.

Approving these licenses for development would be a crime against Planet Ocean at a time when marine life needs all the protection we can give it.”

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift said: “There is no public gain from these new licences, only more profit for oil and gas companies. Whatever is extracted, and it is likely to be mainly oil for export and even then not for years, will do nothing to lower UK energy bills and next to nothing for UK energy security.

“When you then factor in the harm that these new licences could cause the UK’s marine environment, and the amazing creatures that depend on it, this seems like a particularly destructive act by the government, which has pledged to protect our seas. British waters have already experienced record-breaking marine heatwaves this summer, driven by climate change, and yet this government seems hell bent on pouring even more fuel on the fire.”

New licences that could impact protected areas are subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment due to their protected status, and the government will be forced to consult on them before any licence is granted.”


  • A licence can consist of multiple blocks, a 10 by 20km area of UK sea used in licensing rounds. 115 applications were received in the latest round covering 258 blocks or half blocks under the 33rd Licensing Round. 96 of these blocks intersect with Marine Protected Areas. All figures from OPRED 33rd Seaward Licensing Round Appropriate Assessment
  •  For an overview of the impacts of offshore oil and gas on marine life see Uplift & Oceana In Deep Water report (2022)
  • The full list of signatories to the open letter include:
  • Oceana
  • Uplift
  • Wildlife and Countryside Link
  • Blue Marine Foundation
  • Marine Conservation Society
  • Greenpeace UK
  • RSPB
  • Whale and Dolphin Conservation
  • British Divers Marine Life Rescue
  • Compassion in World Farming
  • Surfers Against Sewage
  • Wildlife Trusts
  • Environmental Investigations Agency
  • Fauna & Flora
  • Shark Trust
  • Parents for Future UK
  • Angling Trust
  • Institute of Fisheries Management
  • Environmental Justice Foundation
  • World Cetacean Alliance
  • ORCA
  • Pembrokeshire Seal Research Trust
  • Common Seas
  • Seal Research Trust
  • Eden Project
  • Finisterre
  • Patagonia
  • Professor Callum Roberts
  • Dr Diva Amon
  • Blue Earth Summit
  • Protect Blue
  • World Ocean Day for Schools
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Carve Magazine
  • Wavelength Surf Magazine
  • Surfgirl Magazine
  • London Surf Film Festival