LONDON, 7th November 2023New Global Witness analysis reveals that UK refineries will be unable to process up to half of the UK’s North Sea oil by 2035, as Rishi Sunak uses the King’s Speech today to pledge to double down on domestic drilling.

According to the study by Global Witness using Rystad data, 25% of the oil the UK currently produces is classified as "heavy." In the coming decade, as new licenses are activated, this figure is expected to rise to 50%.

Currently, UK refineries largely use light oil, which is more expensive to buy, but cheaper to turn into products like petrol. This is because UK refineries are old and global competition is strong.  

UK refineries are not well equipped to use heavy crude. They generally process light oil, according to a Wood Mackenzie study, having been built before North Sea production started.

The UK already exports over 80% of oil produced in the North Sea. As the UK produces more oil it cannot use, this figure looks only like to increasing.

The findings suggest that the UK’s energy needs cannot be met by North Sea drilling.  Campaigners are calling on the government to supercharge the UK’s investment in cheap renewable energy, retrofit Britain’s homes and expand onshore wind, which are a better route to energy security for the UK.

Alice Harrison, Fossil Fuel Campaign Lead, Global Witness said:

“Rishi Sunak’s obsession with oil in today’s King’s Speech is a red herring. The UK can’t process the oil we produce, and fresh analysis today shows the situation is only getting worse. Drilling and exporting more planet-wrecking, expensive fossil fuels will do nothing for the UK’s energy security or household bills, and will only line the pockets of a small handful of fossil fuel firms”.

Note to editors:

  • The detailed analysis and findings by Global Witness are based on Rystad Energy data and current UK energy statistics
  • Crude oil pulled out of the ground can broadly be put into two groups: “heavy” and “light.”  

  • UK refineries largely use light oil, according to a 2009 Wood Mackenzie report. This is because they were built when Libya was the UK’s main supplier, before North Sea production began, according to Ed Conway, author of Material World.
  • In 2022, the UK exported over 80 percent of the oil we produced. Most of it went to the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and China.