September 27, 2023

Campaigners vow legal action over Rosebank oil field approval

Rosebank decision a sign that PM ‘couldn’t care less’ about climate crisis 

Campaigners have reacted to the government’s decision to approve the Rosebank oil field by vowing to take legal action. The government has today given permission to Equinor, the Norwegian state-backed oil company, to develop Rosebank, which is the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field off the coast of Shetland. 

The campaign group Uplift has written to the Secretary of State and the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the regulator partly responsible for the decision, stating that it has strong grounds to believe that the approval of Rosebank is unlawful. Uplift notes the incompatibility of Rosebank’s development with the UK’s climate targets; a potential failure to assess the environmental impacts created by burning Rosebank’s oil; the marine environmental impacts of the field; and a potential failure to ensure a transparent and participatory decision-making process. 

The challenge from Uplift comes in the wake of repeated warnings from scientists, the head of the UN, and other experts that new oil and gas infrastructure is incompatible with staying below 1.5°C of warming. The government’s own advisors on climate, the UK Climate Change Committee, have also confirmed that the expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with net zero (1). Further analysis by Uplift shows that emissions from Rosebank, when combined with already producing fields, would push the UK's oil and gas industry beyond agreed UK emissions reduction targets. (2).

Rosebank’s development would also see a pipeline laid through a protected area of the North Sea: the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt, potentially harming this fragile and significant ecosystem and the diverse marine life it supports. 

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift and a climate lawyer said: “By approving Rosebank, Rishi Sunak has confirmed he couldn’t care less about climate change. As we’ve heard repeatedly, our world can no longer sustain new oil and gas drilling. And when we’re witnessing scorching temperatures, wildfires, devastating flooding and heatwaves in our seas, it could not be clearer that this is a decision by the Prime Minister to add more fuel to the fire.

“Rosebank will do nothing to lower fuel bills or boost UK energy security. Most of this oil will be shipped abroad and then sold back to us at whatever price makes the oil and gas industry most profit. People in the UK overwhelmingly support moving to cheaper, cleaner renewable energy. This government should be prioritising making sure no pensioner, or family with small children is living in a cold, damp home this winter, not handing billions in tax breaks to obscenely wealthy foreign companies.

“Rosebank is a rip off. It’s another case of the government allowing foreign companies to profit, while the costs are put on British people who worry about the world we are handing on to our children.

“There are strong grounds to believe that the way this government has come to this decision is unlawful. We shouldn’t have to fight this government for cheap, clean energy and a liveable climate, but we will.”

Rosebank’s oil will not lower UK fuel bills or boost UK energy security. Ninety percent of its reserves are oil, not gas (3). Like 80% of all North Sea oil, the majority of Rosebank’s oil will likely be put in tankers and exported for refining overseas (4). The UK public, however, would carry almost all the costs of developing Rosebank in the form of a £3.75 billion tax break to Rosebank’s owners (5).

Campaigners also disputed the amount of jobs Equinor says will be created by Rosebank. It is estimated it will only lead to an average of 255 UK-based direct jobs over the life of the field and a further 135 in the supply chain(6).

Burning Rosebank’s oil and gas would produce over 200 million tonnes of CO2, which would be more than the combined annual CO2 emissions of all 28 low-income countries in the world (7).




1. Climate change committee, 2023 Progress Report to Parliament, June 2023

2. New oilfield in the North Sea would blow the UK’s carbon budget, Guardian, April 2023

3. Rystad Energy Resource Estimates

4. National Statistics. Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES): petroleum. (2022).

5. UK planning to launch watered down net zero strategy in oil capital Aberdeen. The Guardian, March 2023
6. Wood Mackenzie & Voar Energy. Rosebank: Investing in energy security and powering a just transition. (2022).

7. World Bank. CO2 emissions. (2020)