For all her green hot air, Sturgeon is over a barrel on the future of oil

BACK in 2017, in a speech soon after the Paris Agreement on climate change, Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t have been clearer on the future of the oil industry.

She said the North Sea ‘will continue to produce oil for decades to come’, and pointed out that it still contains a huge amount of it — up to 20billion barrels.

Indeed, she went further, saying that she wanted to ‘underline and emphasise this — our primary aim is to maximise economic recovery of those reserves’.

Yesterday, there was a crunching gear-change as the First Minister made a speech ahead of the Cop26 climate change summit, which starts on Sunday.

She acknowledged that it’s ‘tempting to tell ourselves that… we must keep exploring for and extracting oil’ but ‘that would be wrong’, creating a ‘vicious cycle of inaction’.

Quite a volte-face, but then with just days to go until Cop26 a repeat of her enthusiasm for more oil extraction wouldn’t have played well.

And she’s locked in a partnership with the anti-capitalist Greens — Miss Sturgeon can’t risk upsetting them, in order to keep her hopes of a second referendum alive.

But that leaves her facing something of a conundrum — how does she transform those oil-dependent jobs into roles within the renewable energy sector?

That was her stated intention yesterday, but it requires a conjuring trick on a massive scale — and frankly there’s not much detail on how it can be achieved.

Not that details were a primary concern for the SNP when it predicated the economic fortunes of an independent Scotland on sky-high oil prices.

That argument unravelled in 2016, the year Scotland would have seceded following a Yes vote, when Scotland’s geographical share of oil revenues went into the red for the first time.

Even so, the oil and gas sector contributed £16.2billion in gross value added to Scottish GDP in 2019, around ten per cent of Scotland’s GDP, supporting an estimated 105,000 jobs.

That’s a lot of livelihoods — and it’s also a great deal of oil to leave untapped in the midst of a burgeoning energy crisis which has seen gas bills spike to dizzying new highs.

Reducing our reliance on imported gas so that we’re not depending on Russia to help keep the lights on should be the priority — but it can’t be, as long as the government believes it’s ‘wrong’ to focus on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, around 5,000 jobs in the Scottish manufacturing and construction industries are believed to be reliant on renewables.

Doubtless, as Miss Sturgeon contends, many of those veteran oil workers can re-train to work in green energy — but that’s a pretty big disparity.

Much of the SNP’s planet-saving rhetoric is powered by little more than wishful thinking — the impact on the economy and ordinary people’s lives — and the cost of achieving ‘net zero’ — are rarely factored in.

Campaigns of old — former First Minister Alex Salmond: ‘We are an oil-rich nation’

Miss Sturgeon spoke out yesterday against relying on the ‘safety net’ of oil and gas — but on the specific issue of the Cambo oil field, near Shetland, she’s still sitting on the fence.

She said the ‘need to speed up the transition [to greener energy] is why, for example, we have said that the proposed Cambo development must be reassessed in light of the climate emergency’.

Reassessed, but not ditched… but then again the SNP has always been keen on this kind of doublethink, maintaining two seemingly contradictory positions at the same time.

Yet Cambo could yield as many as 800million barrels of oil, and Deirdre Michie, chief executive of Oil and Gas UK, has pointed out that without it we will have to import from overseas, ‘frequently from countries with higher emissions and less commitment to act on them’.

The North Sea Transition Deal aims to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions — and the Cambo field is designed with the potential to import renewable power when it becomes feasible in the future.

Turning our backs on that potential at any time would be dubious logic — let alone for a party that once saw oil as pivotal to the country’s future.

But in the aftermath of the pandemic — assuming we are over the worst of it — when economic recovery should be our driving mission, it goes beyond the merely illogical to the completely untenable.

Pursuing the ambition of net zero — now, it seems, a non-negotiable objective — comes at a price, and we’re only just beginning to discover how high it could be.

The operator of the Grangemouth refinery in Stirlingshire has said it may have to shut unless carbon capture goes ahead in Scotland — and for now it’s not the horizon, after the Acorn project in the North-East missed out on becoming the UK’s trailblazer for the technology.

Without carbon capture — which helps to tackle emissions from heavy industry — net zero targets won’t be met, or there will be ‘no industry at all’, according to Oil and Gas UK.

There are many sacrifices to be made on the transition to net zero, if indeed it turns out to be possible, but it’s far from clear that politicians are being honest with us about just how far-reaching they will be.

Bear in mind that the Nicola Sturgeon who is getting plaudits for her call to action on climate change is the same Nicola Sturgeon who ended bridge tolls and spends more on roads than on public transport (although you wouldn’t know it from our potholed roads network).

But it’s easy to see the attraction of talking in grand terms about climate ambitions when there are domestic problems piling up in the First Minister’s back yard, not least over Cop26 itself.

The host city has suffered under the SNP regime and its denial about filthy streets, while the run-up to the summit has been marred by the threat of industrial unrest, potentially bringing train services and refuse collection to a halt during the conference.

The yawning chasm between the rhetoric and the reality was neatly illustrated yesterday when Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee to downplay report of bins staff being taken to hospital because of contact with rats.

What hope do we have of addressing the wider environmental calamity when we can’t ensure bins are safely picked up and the streets are kept clean?

The Press weren’t invited to Miss Sturgeon’s speech yesterday, perhaps because there was simply too much scope for awkward questions about oil — and she hasn’t taken to her podium to warn us all to keep washing our hands for a while.

But then she would also run the risk of being asked about claims by her Health Secretary and her own leading Covid adviser that Cop26 could push up already stubbornly high coronavirus case numbers.

This, then, is the First Minister’s strategy, such as it is — familiar to anyone who’s kept up with her increasingly threadbare plans for independence.

Keep out of the way of anyone asking uncomfortable questions and hope that no one notices her blueprint for a net zero future is built on little more than good intentions — and some glaring contradictions.

  • This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 26, 2021.
  • *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper