Decaying oil and gas pipelines left to fall apart in the North Sea could release large volumes of poisons such as mercury, radioactive lead and polonium-210, notorious for its part in the poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, scientists are warning.
Mercury, an extremely toxic element, occurs naturally in oil and gas. It sticks to the inside of pipelines and builds up over time, being released into the sea when the pipeline corrodes.
Some methylmercury, the most toxic form of the metal, is released by the pipelines although other forms can be converted into it. The international Minamata convention on mercury states that high levels in dolphins, whales and seals can lead to “reproductive failure, behavioural changes and even death”. Seabirds and large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish are also particularly vulnerable.
Lhiam Paton, a researcher from the Institute for Analytical Chemistry at the University of Graz who has raised the alarm over the mercury pollution, told the Guardian and Watershed Investigations that “even a small increase in mercury levels in the sea will have a dramatic impact on the animals at the top of the food web”.
There are about 27,000km (16,800 miles) of gas pipelines in the North Sea, and scientists predict the amount of the metal in the sea could increase anywhere from 3% up to 160% from existing levels. In some countries, such as Australia, companies are required to remove them when the oil well stops operating. But in the North Sea companies are allowed to leave them to rot away.
The number of civil tax avoidance leads looked into by HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service has fallen by almost half in five years, while the number of civil cases it has formally opened has decreased by more than a quarter.
These figures, obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) under Freedom of Information laws, raise questions about the tax authority’s performance since the start of the pandemic.
The new figures suggest that the tax authority’s civil enforcement has also declined alongside its use of criminal powers.
Margaret Hodge MP called on HMRC to “finally crack down on egregious tax avoidance and collect the revenues we desperately need”.
In the tax year of 2018/19, HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service opened 37,273 “risks”, a term used to describe a preliminary inquiry into suspected error or false declaration. In 2022/23, that figure fell to just 21,338 – a 43% decline in five years.
The number of civil cases that were formally opened fell by 28% in the same period, from 17,424 to 12,585.
“The new revelations that HMRC is failing to make up for [declining numbers of criminal prosecutions] by undertaking more civil investigations is just disgraceful,” said Hodge. “These consecutive failures mean tax dodgers and their enablers can continue getting away scot-free.”
Stephen Daly, senior lecturer in corporate law at King’s College London, said: “[The number of] investigations has fallen off a cliff, and that can’t be good … If you don’t enforce the rules, then you create a culture in which people don’t have to worry about their tax returns later being checked.”
Civil inquiries and investigations declined sharply in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted HMRC’s enforcement activity. But despite a significant rise last year, the number of cases remains well below pre-pandemic levels. “If, in fact, this isn’t explained by Covid, then it’s unacceptable,” said Daly.
A HMRC spokesperson told TBIJ that figures relating to its Fraud Investigation Service “do not take account of our overall compliance activity”, including 300,000 interventions opened in 2022/23. They said the authority has recouped £136bn from compliance interventions since 2018/19.
As well as the general decline in civil cases opened by HMRC’s fraud unit, the number opened by its team for investigating offshore, corporate and wealthy taxpayers has fallen especially steeply, by 56% in five years.
“Even when [HMRC is] opening civil cases, they appear to be going after the easier, lower value targets,” said Fiona Fernie, a partner at tax advisory firm Blick Rothenberg.
Last year, HMRC reached one of its highest ever tax settlements when former F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone paid £650m after pleading guilty to tax fraud – but that success was “the exception, not the rule”, said Fernie.
Part of the problem is that the UK has an increasingly complex tax code, which makes enforcement action difficult, she said. “The staff are under considerable pressure, we get an increasingly complicated system every year, [and] it’s very difficult to get anybody to keep up with it.”
Robert Palmer, executive director of Tax Justice UK, said another issue was lack of resources. “We know HMRC is underfunded and resources have been diverted for work on Covid and Brexit,” he said.
HMRC estimates that it collects 95% of all the tax owed in the UK, a proportion it says has remained stable in recent years. However, it estimates that the remaining 5% still accounts for about £36bn.
“Parliamentary research shows that when the government invests in HMRC, the return on investment is significant. Until the department is properly funded, vast sums of money owed, often by the richest people and companies, will go unrecovered,” said Palmer.
The Public Accounts Committee last year found that for every £1 spent on compliance, HMRC recovers £18 in additional tax revenue. “The government is missing the opportunity to recover billions in lost revenue by not resourcing compliance,” it said.
“They have amassed untold wealth off the back of death, destruction, and spiraling energy prices,” a Global Witness investigator said of a new analysis.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches its second anniversary, one group has clearly benefited: the five biggest U.S. and European oil and gas companies.
BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies have made more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits since the war began, according to an analysis published by Global Witness on Monday.
“This analysis shows that regardless of what happens on the front lines, the fossil fuel majors are the main winners of the war in Ukraine,” Global Witness senior fossil fuels investigator Patrick Galey said in a statement. “They have amassed untold wealth off the back of death, destruction, and spiraling energy prices.”
Big Oil’s profits were fueled in part by high wholesale gas prices, which were already elevated before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and skyrocketed afterward. All five companies covered by the analysis reported record profits for 2022.
This bonanza came as the conflict killed more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been devastating for millions of people, from ordinary Ukrainians living under the shadow of war, to the households across Europe struggling to heat their homes,” Galey said.
During 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden accused Big Oil of “war profiteering.”
Global Witness calculated that BP and Shell have raked in enough since the war began—at £75 billion—to pay all British household electricity bills through July 2025. Chevron and ExxonMobil have made a combined $136 billion while Total has netted $50.4 billion.
These massive profits also come as the climate crisis, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, continues to escalate. 2023 was the hottest year on record, and likely the hottest in 125,000 years. Yet instead of using their record profits to invest in renewable energy technology, the five major oil companies have cut back on their climate initiatives and handed massive payouts to shareholders.
“This is yet another way in which the fossil fuel industry is failing customers and the planet.”
Of the more than $280 billion the five companies have brought in since the war began, they returned what Global Witness said was an “unprecedented” $200 billion to shareholders. At the same time, Shell rescinded a promise to curb oil production by 2030 and said it would fire around 200 people employed by its green jobs division. BP, meanwhile, slashed its emissions reduction target from 35-40% of 2019 levels by 2030 to 20-30%.
The money paid to shareholders is also money that could have been paid to help communities adapt to the climate crisis or recover from the damage it has already caused. The $111 billion that the five companies paid to shareholders in 2023 alone is 158 times more than the money pledged to climate-vulnerable nations at COP28, and the €15 billion that TotalEnergies rewarded shareholders with was more than the €10 billion that France needed to recover from droughts and storms in 2022.
Galey said the companies were now “spending their gains on investor handouts and ever more oil and gas production, which Europe doesn’t need and the climate cannot take.”
“This is yet another way in which the fossil fuel industry is failing customers and the planet,” Galey said.
Back in May 2022, the UK government announced the energy profits levy, as a response to the growing pressure for a ‘windfall tax’ on the massive profits being generated by companies pumping oil and gas in the North Sea. These profits were fuelled by skyrocketing fossil fuel prices in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The levy raised the effective rate of corporation tax paid on oil and gas profits from 40% to 65%, and again to 75% in November 2022.
But, it came with a caveat. Despite the UK’s urgent need to kick its addiction to expensive fossil fuels, this government didn’t want to discourage investment in more oil and gas extraction. So they included a tax loophole to ensure that companies investing in new projects to pump fossil fuels out from under the North Sea would see their tax relief (already generous by most standards) rise to 91%. In other words, fossil fuel companies could deduct 91% of their capital investment costs from their corporation tax bill. The ‘windfall tax’ may have, on the surface, attempted to tackle the grotesque profits being raked in by massive companies in the midst of the cost of living crisis – but it also made it cheaper for these companies to extract the fossil fuels contributing to the sky-high cost of living in the first place.
At NEF, we analysed last week’s new OBR data, and found that the loophole included in the energy profits levy has massively increased the amount of tax relief which fossil fuel companies will potentially receive. We estimate that oil and gas extractors could receive up to £18.1bn in tax relief between 2023 and 2026. That’s a massive increase of £10.5bn, or 136%, from the £7.6bn they were expected to receive before the energy crisis. This is an enormous amount of lost revenue that could go to the government to be spent on lowering our energy bills or improving our public services. The OBR expects the UK oil and gas industry to pay £24.3bn in tax between 2024 and 2027, meaning that closing the tax loophole in the energy profits levy could almost double the amount of tax revenue our government could receive – and the businesses in question would still walk away with billions.
Even if you accept the government’s warped logic, which seeks to encourage greater North Sea extraction, the policy appears to be failing. While total potential for tax relief has risen by £10.5bn, total forecast investment has risen by just £3.4bn. This would represent an abysmal return on a government tax measure. Relief has largely been extended to investments which were expected to occur anyway, suggesting the policy is (intentionally or not) little more than a vehicle for oil and gas companies to keep most of their explosive profit growth, while the windfall tax sustains an illusion of fairness.
The energy profits levy helped pay for the government’s emergency cost of living support measures – in theory. But our energy bills remain extortionate, costing 50% more than they did in early 2022, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With the poorest households over £200 a week short of the amount they need for an acceptable standard of living, this government has still not provided enough support. Looking forward, removing the perverse tax reliefs extended to the oil and gas industry could free up almost £13bn of tax revenue between 2024 and 2026: enough to give every household in the country three £150 annual payments to help cover their energy costs.
It’s reasonable to compare the so-called windfall tax to Norway’s windfall tax since they are both taxing fossil fuel activities in the North Sea. The Uk’s Labour party has repeatedly said that it intends to impose a “proper windfall tax”. There was further brief mentions of this during the Labour Party’s reformulation and massive restriction of it’s green policies yesterday 8th February 2024 but it remains unclear what is intended.
What’s obviously clear is that Norway’s windfall tax has made and continues to raise huge sums for Norway. There is still a disguised fossil fuel subsidy for exploration and extraction – from what I can see it appears to be 78%. That’s a long way from Sunak’s 91% and since we’re dealing with vast sums of money, 91 – 78 = 13% of vast sums of money is still vast sums of money (as any Chancellor should realise).
Investment in an offshore operating asset in Year 1 is 100.
In the ordinary tax base (22%), 100 must be capitalized and depreciated linearly over 6 years. The depreciation in Year 1 is 100 / 6 = 16.7, i.e., a deduction of 16.7. This results in a tax amount in Year 1 of -16.7 * 22% = -3.7.
In the special tax base (56%), the entire amount of 100 can be deducted directly. The special tax base will therefore initially be -100. However, we must deduct the tax amount from the ordinary tax base of -3.7 from the -100. The special tax base will thus be -100 – (-3.7) = -96.3. To calculate the special tax amount, we must use the technical special tax rate of 71.8%. The special tax will thus be -96.3 * 71.8% = -69.3.
Hence, total tax on the investment of 100 in the offshore operating asset in Year 1 is
-3.7 + (-69.3) = -73, i.e., a tax deduction of 73.
In Years 2 – 6, the linear depreciation continues in the ordinary tax base. For each of these years, the tax on the investment of 100 in Year 1 is thus -3.7 in the ordinary tax base. At the same time, this tax is treated as “income” in the calculation of special tax, as the amount must be deducted in the special tax base. The special tax will thus be 3.7 * 71.8 = 2.7 in each of the years. Total tax per year will therefore be -3.7 + 2.7 = -1.
Looking at the entire period Year 1 – Year 6 as a whole, the total nominal tax for the investment of 100 in Year 1 is the sum of -73 in Year 1 and -1 for each of Years 2 – 6 (5 years), i.e., -73 + (-5) = -78, resulting in a total deduction of 78 over the period.
Despite windfall tax and record profits, Shell paid just £15 million to UK, 22p per Brit last year
By comparison Norway received £6.3 billion from Shell, over a grand per Norwegian
28th March 2023, London – Energy giant Shell paid just £15 million in taxes and fees to the UK last year on their drilling, compared to over £6.3 billion to the Norwegian government over the same period, according to Global Witness analysis of Shell’s latest tax reporting, released today.
This means Shell paid around just 22p per UK citizen, compared to the £1,171 it paid for every citizen of Norway. This £15 million is much closer to the £9.7 million it awarded its CEO in 2022, than the considerably more it paid to most other countries in which it drills.
The UK ranks 19th out of 25 countries for taxes received by Shell last year, with the likes of the USA, Germany, Qatar and Italy all receiving far more from Shell than the UK. It comes despite the introduction of a UK windfall tax that Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor, described as a “significant set of interventions”.
Shell decreased spending on “renewables and energy solutions” last year, while bp’s spending on “low carbon energy” has flatlined, finds an Energy Monitor analysis of fourth-quarter results.
On Tuesday, UK oil major BP reported that in 2023 it raked in $13.8bn (£10.93bn) in profits. This represented its second-highest annual profit in a decade – despite it being nearly half the record-breaking $27.7bn bp amassed in 2022 after oil prices spiked following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Days earlier, Shell also reported better-than-expected profits of more than $28bn, following a record-breaking $40bn in 2022. Yet both oil majors’ spending on renewables has flatlined, finds Energy Monitor‘s analysis of the companies’ filings.
Shell’s annual results show that investment in “renewables and energy solutions” fell from $3.5bn in 2022 to just $2.7bn last year. The company spent just 11.7% of its total capital expenditure (capex) on renewables in 2023 compared with 15.3% in 2022.
By contrast, bp slightly increased its spending on “low carbon energy” from $1.02bn in 2022 to $1.26bn in 2023, although as the chart below shows, spending on renewables by both companies has flatlined over the past five years.
The UK government is facing two separate legal challenges over its approval of the massive Rosebank oil project in the North Sea.
Both Greenpeace UK and climate group Uplift argue the approval of the oil field breaks the Government’s net zero pledges and fails to acknowledge the project’s environmental harm and emissions impact.
Uplift claims the Energy Secretary failed to prove how the oil field was consistent with the UK’s legally binding net zero emissions target and argues, the government did not provide a good enough assessment of the environmental impact of Rosebank on marine life.
In Greenpeace UK’s application, it argues the Environmental Impact Assessment used to approve the oil field did not consider downstream emissions, and is therefore invalid. The campaign group also argues that there is no evidence Scottish Ministers were consulted on the impacts of Rosebank, which it claims breaches Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations.
Greenpeace also argue oil contamination could affect whales and wild birds, while the drilling and cable laying under the sea could destroy habitats for species that live on the seabed.
Rishi Sunak gave the go-ahead for the controversial undeveloped oil field in September, set to be the UK’s largest untapped oil field containing an estimated 500 million barrels of oil. With Norwegian owner Equinor set to receive £3 billion in tax breaks.
Business leader says government tax credit for oil and gas ‘extends the life of Canada’s largest industrial sector.’
As world leaders meet in Dubai for the COP28 climate negotiations, federal and provincial governments in Canada are preparing to give an estimated $15.3 billion in new subsidies to oil and gas companies, and other heavy emitters, for expanding the production of fossil fuels, according to climate experts.
Those subsidies are taking the form of massive new tax credits for carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is a technology that companies use to grow their extraction of oil and gas while burying a fraction of their greenhouse gas emissions underground.
“I completely agree that Canada’s tax credit for carbon capture and storage is a subsidy to the oil and gas industry,” Jason MacLean, an adjunct professor who studies climate policy at the University of Saskatchewan, told DeSmog in an email.
The federal Canadian government is close to announcing details on a tax credit that will go to top oil and gas companies like Suncor, Cenovus, and Imperial Oil, along with other major industrial polluters. Policymakers previously estimated the value of these investment tax credits to be $10 billion. The government of Alberta, home to the tar sands, has meanwhile announced taxpayer funding in the range of $3.5 billion to $5.3 billion for CCS projects.
The Pathways Alliance, an industry lobbying and marketing group representing 95 percent of tar sands production, says these tax credits are essential for oil and gas producers to lower their emissions in line with achieving “net-zero emissions” by 2050. Reaching “net-zero” entails stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius, a level beyond which scientists warn the impacts to humankind could be catastrophic.
Yet, in submissions to the federal government, the Pathways Alliance explained that lowering a portion of oil sands emissions via carbon capture will create opportunities for the industry to expand globally — even as other countries move away from fossil fuels. “We believe Canada should seek to increase its market share for responsibly produced, lower emissions energy, even if global market demand, as a whole, begins to decline,” the group said in one submission.
“We need to keep in mind that this is about reducing emissions and not reducing production,” the organization said last year in a separate submission, as revealed by DeSmog.
Representatives of the Pathways Alliance are among the 35 people with ties to the fossil fuel sector who are part of Canada’s official delegation to COP28 this year. At the climate talks, they are pushing for policies supporting global deployment of carbon capture, which will allow companies to keep producing oil as countries get stricter about regulating emissions.
“It is really important for the energy industry in Canada because it extends the life of Canada’s largest industrial sector and maintains our competitiveness over the long term,” Scott Crockatt of the Business Council of Alberta told the Calgary Herald last month.
However, tax credits supporting carbon capture risk accelerating already dangerous levels of global temperature rise, MacLean argues. Even if the technology can fully capture emissions from the production of oil and gas in Canada — which is an expensive and uncertain proposition — the vast majority of climate impacts occur when fossil fuels are burned in places like car and truck engines and house furnaces.
“No possible innovation or improvement to [carbon capture technology] can change the fact that it applies only to the direct and upstream greenhouse gas emissions arising from the production of oil and gas, not the downstream emissions resulting from the combustion of oil and gas, which represent approximately 85 percent of the total emissions,” MacLean told DeSmog.
Allowing oil and gas to expand while relying on carbon capture could result in the release of 86 billion additional tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide between 2020 and 2050, according to a new analysis from the organization Climate Analytics. This “86 billion tonne carbon bomb” could derail efforts to keep global warming from exceeding dangerous thresholds, the group argues.
The Canadian government earlier this year unveiled detailed plans to remove “inefficient” oil and gas subsidies, with Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault saying at the time that “the simple reality is that it’s no longer free to pollute in Canada.”
A taxpayer-funded drive for ‘blue’ hydrogen is good news for fossil-fuel lobbyists, but bad news for the climate crisisMon 4 Dec 2023 12.25 CET
With the impacts of the climate crisis so apparent for all to see, it is becoming ever harder for governments to fob off voters with promises of action tomorrow. At Cop28 we’ll see increasingly overt action by fossil fuel companies and petrostates to preserve their traditional power. But it is just as important to scrutinise emerging so-called green or low-emission solutions, which sound plausible, but are often simply big oil’s business-as-usual in a new guise.
The UK’s much touted low carbon hydrogen standard (LCHS) is an example of this. While hydrogen can be a low-emission fuel, the UK’s plan is quite clearly a fig leaf for “blue” hydrogen – which is made from fossil fuels – and according to one study, is even more at odds with our commitment to limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C than burning coal.
Today, the vast majority of the UK’s hydrogen production is made from natural gas (the marketing term for methane) in a very carbon-intensive process. Blue hydrogen would also be produced from methane, but with promises that the resulting CO2 emissions would be captured and buried underground. But even if most of the CO2 can be safely captured (a very big “if”), blue hydrogen’s full life-cycle emissions are likely still to be high.
That is in part as a consequence of methane leaks across the vast North Sea supply chain. Methane is a very powerful warming gas, so even with relatively low leakage rates, blue hydrogen will be bad news for the climate. Currently, 84% of the UK’s misleadingly named “low carbon” hydrogen capacity under development is of this blue variety.
Companies will be awarded substantial taxpayer funding for blue hydrogen plants that are certified compliant with the new LCHS – and here, the hallmarks of lobbying are only too apparent. The LCHS method for calculating life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions appears rigged to greenwash blue hydrogen.