Fossil fuel extraction and exploration is taking place at almost 3,000 sites in protected areas around the world, analysis has revealed, with the UK having the highest number of fossil fuel sites in protected areas.
Globally, the activities affect more than 800 areas established to defend nature. The coal, oil and gas at the fossil fuel sites would lead to 47bn tonnes of climate-heating carbon dioxide if fully exploited, four times the annual emissions of China, the world’s biggest polluter.
The sites included are oil and gas operations, coalmines, fossil fuel sites in development and those with exploration licences.
“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 analysis also assessed the potential CO2 emissions from fossil fuel activities in protected areas for each country, with China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia making up the top three and the UK, Australia, US and Canada all in the top 12.
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. China’s Xilin Gol natural steppe protected area and the Jubail marine wildlife sanctuary in Saudi Arabia also contain fossil fuel activities.
The United Arab Emirates will preside over the UN’s annual climate summit in November and December and is also in the top 12 countries, with oil and gas activities in the Marawah biosphere reserve, which is a refuge for dugongs, sea turtles and corals.
At 509, the number of fossil fuel sites in UK protected areas is more than any other country, according to the analysis, with most in the North Sea. It found 170 oil and gas sites in the southern North Sea Ospar marine protected area and further sites in the north Norfolk sandbanks, Saturn reef, and Liverpool Bay protected areas. The Faroe-Shetland sponge belt Ospar area is also an area of major fossil fuel exploitation.
Onshore in the UK, the South Downs national park hosts nine oil and gas sites, with other sites in the area of outstanding natural beauty in Lincolnshire Wolds 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.”
Most of the major oil and gas companies profit from oil and gas extraction in protected areas, the researchers said. The company operating the most oil and gas extraction assets in protected areas is Australian energy company Santos, with the analysis indicating 339 sites.
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 industry-standard data provider Rystad.
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 researchers identified 2,933 fossil fuel sites in 835 protected areas around the world but said the analysis was likely to be an underestimate as it only included internationally recognised protected areas and officially declared fossil fuel activities.
Protected areas are usually designated to conserve nature, which is facing a mass extinction, but many still permit fossil fuel extraction. In some cases, protected areas have been downgraded, downsized or abolished to enable fossil fuel extraction.
Half of the 835 protected areas only contain small amounts of fossil fuels, less than 1m barrels of oil, or an equivalent amount of gas. The researchers said these would be especially good sites for protection from fossil fuel industry activity, particularly as these are often relatively pristine areas.
The researchers used published methodologies to estimate that keeping all fossil fuels under protected areas in the ground would avoid climate damages of $20tn and save the lives of nearly 11 million people.
Kühne believes the UAE has a particular responsibility as UN climate summit hosts this year. He said: “UAE is aspiring to this role of moral leader of the global community in addressing the climate emergency. We thought it was a good moment to show them an opportunity to actually exercise leadership in that area for protection.”
The office of the UAE’s climate envoy and energy company Santos did not respond to requests for comment.