fossil fuel protests


A recent analysis has uncovered a disturbing reality: fossil fuel extraction and exploration are occurring in nearly 3,000 sites located within protected areas worldwide. Astonishingly, the United Kingdom houses the highest number of such fossil fuel sites within protected areas.

These activities have a global impact, affecting over 800 areas established to safeguard nature. The coal, oil, and gas reserves in these sites, if fully exploited, would result in the release of 47 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, a climate-heating gas. This amount is four times the annual emissions of China, the world’s largest polluter.

“Every single one of these sites is a sign of hypocrisy, saying on one hand that this area is worthy of protection and then on the other hand, bringing fossil fuel extraction into those same areas,” said Alice McGown, a geographic information expert at the Leave it in the Ground Initiative (Lingo), which produced the study.

The identified sites encompass oil and gas operations, coal mines, fossil fuel sites in development, and those with exploration licenses. The analysis also assessed the potential carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel activities within protected areas for each country. China, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia emerged as the top three offenders, while the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and Canada also ranked among the top 12.

The affected areas include marine protection areas in the UK, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the US, Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks, and the Coongie Lakes in South Australia. Notably, China’s Xilin Gol natural steppe protected area and Saudi Arabia’s Jubail marine wildlife sanctuary also contain fossil fuel activities.

Adding to the concern, the United Arab Emirates, which will preside over the UN’s annual climate summit, is among the top 12 countries. The UAE has oil and gas activities within the Marawah biosphere reserve, a crucial habitat for dugongs, sea turtles, and corals.

With 509 fossil fuel sites in UK protected areas, the country leads the global list, predominantly in the North Sea. The southern North Sea Ospar marine protected area alone hosts 170 oil and gas sites, with additional sites in the north Norfolk sandbanks, Saturn reef, and Liverpool Bay protected areas. The Faroe-Shetland sponge belt Ospar area is also subject to significant fossil fuel exploitation.

Onshore in the UK, the South Downs National Park is home to nine oil and gas sites, while other sites are found in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the North York Moors National Park.

“Britain has many offshore extraction sites within internationally recognised protected areas in the North Sea and what’s really worrying is that they’re developing even more right now,” said McGown.

A spokesperson for the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “The UK’s expert regulators consider and assess the environmental impacts, including to habitats, before any decisions on new oil or gas projects. We know oil and gas will continue to be needed now and in the coming years as we scale up renewables and new nuclear to boost Britain’s energy security and bring down bills in the long term.”

The researchers discovered that most major oil and gas companies profit from extraction activities in protected areas. Australian energy company Santos emerged as the company with the most assets, operating 339 oil and gas extraction sites within protected areas.

To conduct the analysis, the researchers cross-referenced maps of protected areas recognised by the UN Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature with information on fossil fuel sites from Rystad, an industry-standard data provider.

Kjell Kühne, also at Lingo, said: “We’re in the midst of a climate emergency and we know most fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, but both governments and companies have been very shy in identifying any places where that is to happen.”

“Sooner or later humanity will get its act together and when that happens, it will be very useful if places we have set aside anyway for protection cannot be targeted by fossil fuel extraction,” he said. “In the absence of governments taking action, this analysis will help civil society to defend those places.”

The study identified 2,933 fossil fuel sites within 835 protected areas worldwide. However, the researchers noted that this is likely an underestimate as it only considered internationally recognised protected areas and officially declared fossil fuel activities.

Protected areas are typically designated to conserve nature, which is currently facing a mass extinction crisis. Nevertheless, many of these areas still permit fossil fuel extraction. In some instances, protected areas have been downgraded, reduced in size, or abolished altogether to facilitate such extraction.

Half of the 835 protected areas identified in the study only contain small amounts of fossil fuels, less than 1 million barrels of oil or an equivalent amount of gas. The researchers highlight that these areas, often relatively pristine, would be particularly suitable for protection from fossil fuel industry activities.

Using established methodologies, the researchers estimated that preserving all fossil fuels beneath protected areas would prevent climate damages totalling $20 trillion and save the lives of nearly 11 million people.

This analysis underscores the urgent need to reconcile the goals of conservation and climate action, advocating for stronger protection of vulnerable ecosystems while moving decisively towards renewable energy sources to mitigate the climate crisis.



At Natural World Fund, we are passionate about stopping the decline in our wildlife.

The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.

When you help to restore a patch of degraded land through rewilding to forests, meadows, or wetlands, you have a massive impact on the biodiversity at a local level. You give animals a home and food that they otherwise would not have had, and it has a positive snowball effect for the food chain.

We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.

This is why we stand for restoring nature in the UK through responsible rewilding. For us, it is the right thing to do. Let’s do what’s right for nature!

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