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Fergus Mutch: Time for a rethink of the SNP’s naive ‘Stop Cambo’ sloganeering

© Supplied by Fergus MutchFergus Mutch.
Fergus Mutch.

Just five weeks ago, the UK Government left an almighty open goal for the SNP.

For the second time in six years, they snubbed the north-east for carbon capture and storage investment, and instead approved two sites in England.

Energy industry giant Sir Ian Wood didn’t mince his words, saying the decision not to back the Acorn Project at St Fergus gas terminal made “little economic or environmental sense”.

The SNP’s energy spokesman at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, fast becoming a standout, straight-talking parliamentarian, said: “This is a complete betrayal of the north-east by the Westminster government – and this day will live long in the memories of people right across Scotland”.

It should have done.

While the UK Government turned its back on low carbon jobs, the Scottish Government could have seized the initiative and shown leadership on Scotland’s energy future. But, for now at least, that strategic opportunity has been squandered.

Cambo oilfield has become a byword for all future development in the North Sea. It is but one field, big enough in North Sea terms at 800 million barrels in place, but in a global context only containing enough oil to satisfy worldwide demand for a week.

Indicating that drilling west of Shetland, or anywhere else, should not get the green light when we are yet to sufficiently reduce our demand for oil and gas puts the cart a country mile in front of the horse.

Oil and gas supports just shy of 100,000 jobs across Scotland, the majority of those in the north-east. Those who have lived most of our lives here, who have seen the peaks and troughs in the region’s fortunes on the back of a sometimes volatile oil price, know how grave the consequences could be in pulling the plug prematurely.

Renewables, meanwhile, on the latest reckoning, support 23,000 jobs nationwide. A “just transition” which, by the Scottish Government’s own definition, is a move to net zero which leaves “no one behind” on the scrapheap of unemployment, cannot happen when green job creation is dwarfed by potential redundancies.

Unless governments take the lead in tackling demand for oil and gas as an urgent priority, then hamstringing suppliers simply increases reliance upon imported petroleum for many years to come. While prematurely calling a halt on North Sea development might sound like environmentalism, Russia, the Middle East and Norway will gladly continue to flog us their oil – shipped to Scotland’s shores with a heftier carbon footprint and cost.

The naivety of “Stop Cambo” sloganeering is exposed on these points alone.

But nobody is denying that we need a plan. Transition to net zero is an urgent and necessary requirement for the future of our planet, on which we need a consensus between government, industry and the public at large.

Aberdeen worked hard for its status as Europe’s oil capital and took advantage of massive investment. The entrepreneurial spirit of its people saw multinational companies grow out of sheds in Dyce and Altens, creating thousands of jobs and opportunities.

We have no right to green jobs, but the oil and gas companies have the world class infrastructure, expertise and finance in place for Scotland to capitalise on. That’s what makes us the best location to lead the UK’s energy transition.

If the message to industry is “time’s up”, then the worst case scenario could be wholesale corporate flight, leaving a post-industrial wasteland behind.

A £500 million just transition fund over 10 years from the Scottish Government is all well and good – indeed, it’s a damn sight better deal than anything Westminster has stumped up to date. But, for an industry which adds £18 billion in value to the local economy each year, it’s a drop in the ocean.

The major finance which the challenge of energy transition demands will come from business, with the right policy decisions from government supporting and leading them in that direction. Stop Cambo doesn’t achieve that, but utilising revenues from Cambo to finance a just transition might.

The current trajectory will prove politically difficult for the SNP in the north-east, economically punishing for Scotland, and set our global ambitions to address climate change backwards. It’s time for a rethink.

Fergus Mutch is former head of political communications for the SNP

This article originally appeared on The Press & Journal.

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