If politicians allow the prize of becoming a global green energy hub to slip away from the north-east, they will never be forgiven, writes Ryan Crighton.
The votes are in from London and Edinburgh, and it appears that the north-east of Scotland will not be getting a green freeport.
The winner takes it all, and it is right to acknowledge the strengths of the winning bids from Cromarty and Forth Ports. However, failure to select the joint Aberdeen and Peterhead bid is a missed opportunity for our energy transition, especially given Nicola Sturgeon’s stated ambition to turn Aberdeen into a green energy capital of the world.
And it begs the question: just how much more can our two governments punish the north-east of Scotland?
We have the expertise – now give us the means
Little more than 24 hours after the Scottish Government revealed an energy strategy that told the world it doesn’t want any more oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, it appears that ministers are also turning their backs on ambitions to make our region a global green energy capital.
And, as the UK Government squeezes the energy sector dry with a windfall tax, it has also chosen to snub the region which has unlocked over £350 billion of tax revenues from the North Sea.
We should also remember Westminster’s 2021 decision to pick two carbon capture projects in English red wall seats over the far more suitable Acorn project on the Buchan coast.
The case for a north-east Scotland green freeport is clear; we have the skills, expertise and infrastructure – and, with the tax and other levers of a freeport, this region could accelerate the energy transition.
It would have delivered an £8.5 billion GVA boost, created more than 32,000 new, high quality jobs, and ushered in a new era of investment, innovation, regional regeneration and opportunities for those who need them most.
Instead, both governments have placed our once unshakable status as a global energy capital under threat with their hat-trick of awful policy decisions. And the stakes here could not be higher – both in terms of jobs and economic prosperity for this region.
Freeport status is still achievable
The recent Making the Switch report by Robert Gordon University shows that 45,000 people in the north-east are employed in the offshore energy sector. It looks at four future scenarios, and the worst of these – “regional decline” – sees this figure fall by an eye-watering 17,000 by 2030, as the UK oil and gas industry declines.
That’s the price of failing to take the opportunity in front of us.
Both governments must now work together to take action, starting by bringing forward an additional green freeport award
If we achieve our ambitions to become a “global new energy hub”, the 45,000 could grow to 54,000, but only if we get the nature and timing of related decisions right.
Both governments must now work together to take action, starting by bringing forward an additional green freeport award. The original policy papers which accompanied the launch of freeports states that “further awards may be made if bids are particularly strong”.
Words mean nothing without meaningful action
Government ministers must also deliver the Acorn carbon capture project in Peterhead, and seriously reconsider their mistakes on oil and gas taxation and policy.
If they allow the prize of becoming a global green energy hub to slip away from Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, they will never be forgiven for this catalogue of betrayals.
As for Nicola Sturgeon’s green energy capital pledge? Gimme, gimme, gimme strength. Warm words mean absolutely nothing without meaningful action.
The £500 million Scottish Government Just Transition Fund over 10 years is very welcome, but it’s a mere drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of social and economic damage that will result from a premature end to North Sea operations, which is what SNP-Green administration is advocating.
We have parliamentarians from both the SNP and the Conservatives representing the communities of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. We need them to step up and arrest the damaging, job-destroying ignorance being applied to the north-east.
For too long, governments and civil servants have believed that the streets here are lined with gold. They are not. And we’re sleepwalking into deep trouble if they don’t grasp this fact fast.
Ryan Crighton is policy director at Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce