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John Kenny, Andy Jordan, Lucas Geese, Chantal Sullivan-Thomsett, and Irene Lorenzoni explore new polling on what the public think about the prospect of North Sea oil and gas expansion. They highlight that opinion towards the measure is split along party lines, as well as other characteristics, but the public support the overall phase-out of fossil fuels.

Next week MPs are set to debate the government’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which mandates annual licensing rounds for new offshore oil and gas licenses, as proposed last July.

While advocated as a measure to boost British energy security and facilitate economic growth, critics argue that it is incompatible with the government’s net zero commitments. The Climate Change Committee – the government’s independent advisory body – has advised that the UK’s energy needs do not justify oil and gas expansion. The Labour Party is taking a different stance on the issue, and has said it will not grant any new licenses should it form the next government.

But what does the public think of oil and gas expansion? As part of the European Research Council-funded DeepDCarb project, we fielded a representative survey of 2,002 British adults between 15 November to 18 December 2023 undertaken by Survation. We asked respondents how much they support the following policy on a 1-5 scale: ‘Issue licences to permit new oil and gas expansion’.

We find that the public has mixed views: 41% support expansion and 30% are opposed suggesting that sympathies exist for both sides of the argument. At the same time, almost one-third are undecided on the issue. This is a substantial proportion of the public that could be persuaded either way by both policy advocates and opponents.

Broken down by current vote intention, stark divisions are evident. The measure is supported by two-thirds and only opposed by one in ten of both Conservative and Reform voters while Labour voters are 41% against and 34% in favour. Those opposed to the policy make up the majority of Green and SNP voters. The views of party supporters tend to reflect the message of the party they support.

There are also divides based on other individual characteristics. Most notably, opposition is higher among Remain (53%) than Leave (16%) voters and those with a university degree (51%) than without (24%) a degree. Conversely, support is higher among those who voted Leave (56%) rather than Remain (29%) and those who do not have a university degree (42%) compared to those who do (35%).

Despite these divisions, it is worth emphasising that the British public is not opposed in principle to the overall phase-out of fossil fuels. In our survey, we also asked – on a 1-5 scale – how much priority the country should give to transitioning from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. On this issue, 56% stated that such a transition should be a top or high priority and just 14% felt it should be a low priority/not a priority.

The figure below demonstrates that even among those who think that a clean energy transition should be a top priority for the country, a notable minority (22%) currently support new gas and oil permits. As perceived priority of an energy transition lessens, opposition to these licenses drops and support increases. It is also a reminder – as has been noted previously – that while the public is broadly supportive of decarbonisation, they may not always be opposed to measures that make the transition more challenging.

Being in favour of prioritising a renewable energy transition while supporting the expansion of oil and gas licenses is not in itself contradictory. People may consider the granting of new oil and gas licenses to be a necessary interim measure (despite warnings to the contrary). But as renewable energy sources continue to become more affordable and accessible – with global renewable capacity increasing by 50% in 2023 alone – such views are increasingly divorced from technological and economic realities.

So, what can we take from these findings? Support for oil and gas expansion is currently that bit greater than opposition, but highly correlated with voting intentions. Conservative and Reform party voters are the most in favour of expansion, whereas voters who support any of the other parties are more opposed than in favour.

The Conservatives may thus have electoral grounds for pushing forward with this policy. It is largely popular within their existing base, and even one-third of those currently intending to vote for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats support it. The Bill also follows in the wake of a number of other controversial climate and environmental policy proposals including rolling back on previous net zero commitments. These were largely pursued following the surprise Conservative win in the Uxbridge by-election last year, which many attributed to Labour’s expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

The current strategy does though come with substantial political risk by exposing divisions within the party on climate policy, with the proposed oil and gas expansion having already sparked vocal internal opposition. Former energy minister, Chris Skidmore, has resigned his parliamentary seat triggering a by-election in Kingswood. Moreover, Alok Sharma – who was President of the COP26 Summit in Glasgow – has announced that he will not vote for the legislation.

While the British public is divided on granting new oil and gas permits, not everyone has a clear stance on the issue yet. The cross-party elite consensus on climate change has broken down, and the public are divided along political – and indeed educational – lines on the proposal.

By Dr John Kenny, Senior Research Associate, Professor Andy Jordan, Professor of Environmental Sciences, Dr Lucas Geese, Research Fellow, Dr Chantal Sullivan-Thomsett, Senior Research Associate, and Professor Irene Lorenzoni, Professor of Society and Environmental Change, University of East Anglia.

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