Theresa May’s decision to abolish the department of energy and climate change in Thursday’s ministerial reshuffle has provoked angry criticism from environmental groups and some MPs.
“It sends a terrible signal at the worst possible time,” said James Thornton, chief executive of the ClientEarth legal group fighting the government to improve air quality standards.
“At a time when the challenge of climate change becomes ever more pressing, the government has scrapped the department devoted to tackling it.”
Green Party MEP Keith Taylor said the move “looks like an act of climate sabotage” while Friends of the Earth described it as “shocking”.
Mrs May has shifted responsibility for energy issues to a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy headed by Greg Clark, formerly secretary of state for communities and local government.
Separately, former energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, a prominent Brexit campaigner who initially challenged Mrs May for the Tory leadership, has been promoted to secretary of state for the environment.
Mr Clark said he was looking forward to “delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change”, along with a comprehensive industrial strategy.
But the chair of the Commons energy and climate change committee, Scottish National Party MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, said he was “astonished” by the step given the uncertainty the Brexit vote had created about future energy investment and broader climate change issues.
“Decc’s disappearance raises urgent questions,” he said, such as which department would take responsibility for energy and climate issues in negotiations to leave the EU.
The decision could also pose a challenge for more conventional energy companies which will now have to compete with other industries for the attention of the business secretary.
North Sea oil and gas producers, for example, will be anxious for policy attention as they struggling with low prices and declining output.
Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK, the trade group for electricity generating companies, said his members would be as concerned as environmentalists to see a reiteration of the government’s commitment to its carbon reduction targets to avoid a period of policy uncertainty.
“Companies are ready to deliver the billions of pounds of investment needed [to decarbonise the electricity system] but we need a clear policy framework to deliver it,” said Mr Slade.
Gareth Stace, director of UK Steel, which represents the crisis-hit steel industry, said he hoped the new business department would bring a more joined-up approach to industrial strategy — including the problem of high energy costs.
Energy is sure to provide Mr Clark with one of the thorniest parts of his new job given the challenges of reducing carbon emissions and delivering urgently-needed new power stations — while keeping a lid on electricity bills.
The proposed nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset was at the heart of the Cameron government’s response to the energy conundrum.
Philip Hammond, the new chancellor, on Thursday indicated that the May administration would stick with the project despite controversy over its heavy cost.
He told BBC radio: “I’m confident we will be able to get the Hinkley Point project going ahead. I hope we’ll be able to bring that project to a conclusion very soon.”