Fossil fuel extraction and exploration takes place at almost 3,000 sites in protected areas around the world, an analysis has revealed, with the UK having the largest number of fossil fuel sites in protected areas.
Worldwide, the activities affect more than 800 areas established for the defense of nature. Coal, oil and gas at fossil fuel sites would generate 47 billion tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide if fully exploited, four times the annual emissions of China, the world’s biggest polluter.
Sites included are oil and gas operations, coal mines, fossil fuel sites under development, and those with exploration licences.
“Each of these sites is a sign of hypocrisy, saying on the one hand that this area is worthy of protection and then on the other hand bringing fossil fuel extraction to those very same areas,” said Alice McGown, a geographic information expert. of the Leave it in the Ground (Lingo) initiative, which produced the study.
The analysis also evaluated the potential CO2 emissions from fossil fuel activities in protected areas for each country, with China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in the top three and the UK, Australia, US and Canada in the top 12.
Affected areas include Marine Protection Areas in the UK, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the US, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parklands and Coongie Lakes in South Australia. China’s Xilin Gol Natural Steppe Protected Area and Jubail Marine Wildlife Sanctuary in Saudi Arabia also contain fossil fuel activities.
The United Arab Emirates will chair the annual UN climate summit in November and December and is also among the top 12 countries with oil and gas activities in the Marawah Biosphere Reserve, which is a haven for dugongs, sea turtles and corals. .
At 509, the number of fossil fuel sites in the UK’s protected areas is more than any other country, according to the analysis, with the majority in the North Sea. It found 170 oil and gas sites in the Ospar marine protected area of the southern North Sea and more sites in the North Norfolk Sandbanks, Saturn Reef and Liverpool Bay protected areas. The Ospar area of the Faroe-Shetland sponge belt is also an area of extensive fossil fuel exploitation.
On land in the UK, the South Downs National Park is home to nine oil and gas sites, with other sites in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the North York Moors National Park.
“Britain has many offshore extraction sites within internationally recognized protected areas in the North Sea and what is really worrying is that they are developing further at the moment,” McGown said.
A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “Expert UK regulators consider and assess environmental impacts, including habitats, before any decisions on new oil or gas projects. We know that oil and gas will continue to be needed now and for years to come as we ramp up renewables and new nuclear power to boost Britain’s energy security and lower bills in the long term.”
Most major oil and gas companies profit from extracting oil and gas in protected areas, the researchers said. The company that operates most of the oil and gas extraction assets in protected areas is the Australian energy company Santos, and the analysis indicates 339 sites.
The researchers compared maps of protected areas recognized by the UN environmental program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature with information on fossil fuel sites from the industry standard data provider Rystad.
Kjell Kühne, also from Lingo, said: “We are in the middle of a climate emergency and we know that most fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, but both governments and companies have been very coy about identifying where that should be. occur. happen.”
“Sooner or later, humanity will act together and when that happens, it will be very helpful if the places we have set aside for protection anyway can’t be targeted for fossil fuel extraction,” he said. “Short of governments taking action, this analysis will help civil society defend those places.”
The researchers identified 2,933 fossil fuel sites in 835 protected areas around the world, but said the analysis was likely an underestimate as it included only internationally recognized protected areas and officially declared fossil fuel activities.
Protected areas are usually designated to conserve nature, which is facing mass extinction, but many still allow for the extraction of fossil fuels. In some cases, protected areas have been downgraded, reduced, or abolished to allow for the extraction of fossil fuels.
Half of the 835 protected areas contain only trace amounts of fossil fuels, less than 1 million barrels of oil or gas equivalent. The researchers said these would be especially good sites for shelter from fossil fuel industry activity, particularly as they are often relatively untouched areas.
The researchers used published methodologies to estimate that keeping all fossil fuels under protected areas in the ground would prevent $20 trillion in climate damage and save the lives of nearly 11 million people.
Kühne believes that the UAE has a particular responsibility as the host of the UN climate summit this year. She said: “The UAE aspires to this role as the moral leader of the global community in addressing the climate emergency. We thought it was a good time to show them the opportunity to really exercise leadership in that area of protection.”
The office of the climate envoy for the United Arab Emirates and the Santos energy company did not respond to requests for comment.