Beyond Black Gold
The chair of the Growth Commission, Andrew Wilson has stated what a lot of us have been saying for a very long time, that the economic case for independence should not include North Sea oil revenues. Wilson has suggested that making North Sea revenues central to the economic arguments for independence ahead of the 2014 referendum was a mistake. He told BBC Scotland:
“I can say with some certainty in terms of our own work that we’ll assume for the purposes of our projections that oil is producing zero revenues and therefore treat any revenues that we get from oil as a proper windfall to be used on intergenerational projects rather than spent on spending today.”
He continued, reflecting the new pragmatism emerging as the basis for a second referendum:
“I guess that’s why oil’s not a particularly helpful argument – because it gives the suggestion that somehow there’s a free lunch and that we won’t have to work, and of course we all will have to work no matter what happens. Independence would give us more tools and that’s what’s different”.
This came in the same week as the Financial Times report of a North Sea revival: “Energy companies active in the UK North Sea will generate positive free cash flow in 2017 for the first time in four years, as groups show signs of recovery following the oil price crash of 2014, says the industry’s trade body.”
This revival, if it is indeed a revival, is of course completely beside the point, as Wilson, and no doubt the upper echelons of the SNP know fine well. The petrochemical case for an economy has been undermined since the first referendum and to continue or repeat that case would be political suicide.
Of course the far more compelling reason to shift our economic and political focus is the harsh realities of our climate crisis, a point made repeatedly by this site and by the Scottish Greens for a very very long time. It’s a reality undisputed only by a tiny shard of people globally. It’s a point made vivid by this graphic of the reduction in perennial Arctic sea ice from 1984 – 2016 shows (in case you needed convincing).
This is the reduction in perennial Arctic sea ice from 1984 to 2016 pic.twitter.com/ng6d00kjD8
— How Things Work (@ThingsWork) February 27, 2017
So the choices we face about what kind of country we want to live in – and what kind of future we want to create cannot be exclusively constitutional.
The simple fact that the opportunity for Scottish renewables is vast is also a reason to make this long-overdue shift as part of the transition to a low-carbon society. This week saw two further announcements that are far more prescient than the Brent crude oil uplift.
First we heard from Atlantis Resources that:
“Developers of the world’s largest tidal stream energy plant have set out ambitious plans to slash its power generation costs by more than half in an attempt to secure subsidies for the project to continue. Atlantis Resources has installed four turbines on the seabed between the northern Scottish mainland and the island of Stroma. It hopes to expand the project, known as Meygen, eventually to build 260 such machines, which it likens to “underwater windmills”, harnessing some of the fastest-flowing waters in Britain to generate up to 398 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 175,000 homes.”
Second we heard new figures on renewables (‘Wind turbines ‘provided two thirds of Scots energy needs’) prompting WWF Scotland director Lang Banks to say:
“Thanks to a combination of increased capacity and stronger winds, output from turbines was up more than two-fifths compared to the same period last year. This was enough power to provide the equivalent of the electrical needs of almost four million homes. As well as helping to power our homes and businesses, wind power supports thousands of jobs and helps Scotland to avoid over a million tonnes of polluting carbon emissions every month.”
Now oil and renewable are very different energy sectors, but in terms of where we put our investment and where we create our economic and our ecological wellbeing (and how we deal with the North Sea) they are deeply connected. One is future-focused and life-enhancing and one is backwards-looking and life-draining.
Commenting on Andrew Wilson’s comments Friends of the Earth Scotland Director, Richard Dixon said :
“This is a very welcome recommendation. The oil industry is in terminal decline and the future economy of Scotland should be based on our huge advantages in renewable energy rather than on a climate-wrecking industry of the past. Following the Paris climate agreement financial investors are beginning to realise how risky new investments in oil and gas are and Scotland shouldn’t be banking on North Sea oil in future.”
And, on a less positive note: “A vital part of any future divorce from the rest of the UK would be agreeing who is going to pay the tens of billions of public money needed to remove the rigs and other structures the industry has litter across the waters around Scotland.”
The approach outlined by Wilson is likely to cause apoplexy amongst two significant groups. One is the self-styled unionist economists who view the fluctuating oil price as a political godsend (it is) and proof that Scotland is an economic basket-case (it isn’t). They are argue this in all worlds under all circumstances and are unable and unwilling to update their economic case for the union, which they will desperately need to do as their cultural case is fundamentally broken. The other group who won’t like this at all is the Petrol Heads in the Nationalist community, who either somehow prioritise independence over climate, or are so wedded to the idea of ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ that they can’t see past this. For some of this generation ‘Oil is Liberator’.
There are some who argue that Scotland’s contribution to climate change is so insignificant we should ignore any limits. You see this frequently argued on some platforms. It’s a bit like arguing “Look I don’t want to stab you but if I don’t someone else will”. If that argument holds sway they should petition the Scottish Government to abandon its famously world-leading climate change targets and get cranking the Fracking while we’re done.
Making the case for independence for Scotland means looking ahead not clinging to the past – and having some imagination – combined with a healthy dose of pragmatism. That is what will win us not just a functioning democracy but a sustainable ecology and a flourishing economy.