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The North Sea Changed Scotland Forever – But The Era Of Big Oil Is Over

In December 1969, the Amoco Corporation struck oil 130 miles east of the Aberdeenshire shoreline—and the axis of Scottish politics suddenly shifted.

In the years that followed, the claim that Scotland’s economy was too weak to support an independent state rapidly crumbled.

Even an aspiring British prime minister was forced to acknowledge the revolutionary impact of the North Sea.

The “oil-fired” rise of the SNP, Gordon Brown wrote in 1975, at the age of 24, was “less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation than a response to Scotland’s uneven development.”

By the early 1990s, the case for Scottish control of Scottish oil resources was unanswerable.

For a decade, Margaret Thatcher wasted peak North Sea revenues on a rising welfare bill—the inevitable (and deliberate) result of her monetarist attacks on Britain’s industrial base.

Had those revenues been strategically invested in safe assets, some economists estimate, Britain would now be in possession of a sovereign wealth fund worth upward of £450bn.

We don’t have to look far for vivid examples of what might have been.

In the 1960s, Norway was roughly as rich as Greece – a little below the European average.

Today, having carefully managed the profits from its own oil boom, it is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with much lower rates of poverty and inequality than Britain and much higher rates of overall happiness.

But it’s been half a century since Amoco first unearthed the Montrose Field—half a century—and, since then, something profound and unsettling has happened.

Last year’s IPCC report made the terms of our new reality clear.

If we stay on our current climate trajectory—four degrees of global warming over the next eight decades – millions of people around the world will be fried, flooded or starved to death, and no-one, from Edinburgh to Eritrea, will be immune from the effects of increasingly severe weather conditions.

That’s the worst case scenario. The best is only marginally better.

As journalist David Wallace-Wells explained in a viral piece for New York Magazine in October, even if we manage to limit global warming to, say, a two-degree increase by 2040, the social and environmental consequences will still be catastrophic.

“Nearly all coral reefs would die out,” he wrote. “Wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure.”

(This process has, in fact, already begun: think of the 2018 fires in California—the deadliest in the state’s history—which destroyed nearly two million acres of land, killed almost 90 people, and incinerated more than 10,000 man-made structures.)

Nicola Sturgeon casts herself as a pioneering leader in the fight against climate change.

Last summer, the Scottish government introduced a new draft Climate Change Bill that it claimed would set the “toughest” emissions reduction targets anywhere in the world.

“Our 90 per cent [reduction] target [by 2050] will be tougher even than the 100 per cent goal set by a handful of other countries,” the Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said, “because our legislation will set more demanding, legally-binding, annual targets covering every sector of our economy.”

But this isn’t strictly true.

According to analysis by The Ferret, only two countries – Morocco and The Gambia—have policies robust enough to meet the targets set by the Paris climate agreement, and Sweden plans to reach the crucial “net zero” carbon threshold by 2045, anchored by a legal obligation to update the Swedish parliament on the country’s progress every year until net-zero is achieved.

There is no equivalent deadline for carbon neutrality in the SNP’s bill.

(“The bill doesn’t commit to the action necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” Friends of the Earth Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon concluded, “it doesn’t deliver on the Paris Agreement, and it doesn’t deliver on Sturgeon’s promise to ensure that Scotland plays our full part in tackling this global [challenge].”)

The real problem, however, isn’t that the Scottish government could do more at the legislative level to reduce Scotland’s carbon output—although it could.

It’s that the SNP remains politically tethered to North Sea oil, even as the urgency of our climate crisis intensifies week after week, month after month, and year after year.

Last week, Holyrood debated how Scotland could facilitate a “just transition” to a carbon-neutral economy.

During the debate, MSPs from all parties acknowledged the urgency of the threat posed by climate change.

But when the Greens lodged a motion stating that the maximum economic recovery of UK oil and gas reserves – an aim supported by both the UK and Scottish governments—was incompatible with halting climate change, the SNP voted it down, alongside Labour, the Liberals, and the Tories.

Worse still, since 2014, as North Sea revenues have crashed, the SNP has essentially reinvented itself as a champion of oil industry interests—despite the fact that industry has, in recent years, systematically laid off thousands of Scottish workers in an aggressive bid to salvage its profit margins.

In 2017, the party called on Westminster to offer financial incentives to the oil and gas sector in order to boost exploration and drilling—a move, The Guardian says, that would result in “tens of millions [of] more tonnes of CO2” being churned into the atmosphere.

In 2018, it attacked Labour for opposing a Tory plan to cut taxes for energy companies looking to extend the lifespan of existing North Sea fields.

And earlier this month, it enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of a “revival” in North Sea production.

None of this reflects the actions of a party determined, as Sturgeon claimed last year at the UN climate conference in Poland, to fulfil its “moral responsibility” to combat climate change.

It suggests, instead, that the SNP isn’t willing to take radical action in order to avert an extinction-level climate disaster.

But radical action is precisely what’s needed.

As Adam Ramsay has written (citing the work of environmentalist Bill McKibben), in 2012, the maximum amount of additional carbon dioxide that we could afford to emit globally was “565 gigatons, while the total amount of carbon in the known reserves of oil companies and oil-producing states was 2,795 gigatons.”

This means, very simply, that the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves have to remain buried, forever, if we are to stand any chance of staving-off environmental collapse.

Yet the SNP’s current policy is to drill, and to keep drilling until the oil runs dry—or until the energy companies decide that their North Sea returns are too thin to justify further investment.

This is the logic of endless extraction – and it is suicidally short-sighted, not just from an environmental perspective but from an economic one, too: there are no life-long jobs left in an industry destined for decline as the global economy shifts – at a “phenomenal” rate – towards renewables.

No one doubts that the North Sea has been a key element in the success of modern Scottish nationalism.

It’s a remarkable symbol of Scotland’s misspent economic potential, and of how different the country could be under better political leadership.

But the world has changed a lot since 1969.

Either the era of major oil extraction projects is at an end—or we are.


For an evening to discuss the process to a Just Transition for Scotland see details for free tickets here. 

Panel Discussion chaired by Christopher Silver

Matthew Crighton, Climate Jobs Campaigner, Friends of the Earth Scotland
Maggie Chapman, Scottish Green Party
Dave Moxham, STUC
Pete Cannell, one of the founders of Scot.E3: Employment, Energy and Environment.

Doors Open 7.30
Panel Discussion 8.00

Tue, January 29, 2019 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM

Custom Lane
1 Customs Wharf

Comments (9)

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  1. Willie says:

    A full on SNP baad article!

    Vote Green do I hear?

    1. GretasPal says:

      Aye, vote “we all exist in 12 years time” – traitors!

    2. I like your thinking Willie – the IPCC and the entire scientific global consensus is clearly a Yoon Conspiracy!


  2. Bob says:

    “the SNP’s current policy is to drill, and to keep drilling until the oil runs dry” I had no idea the SNP are responsible for oil extraction in the North Sea. Is this true? I don’t think so. Mischief making by the mighty pen it seems.

    A much more rational and critical analysis can be found in the event of the Scottish parliament being in control of Oil and Gas where we get to vote for a government that manages all of Scotlands resources and held to account by voters. The SNP will not be running our parliament if we vote in someone else whose policies we prefer.

    Right now of course, the management of North Sea oil is totally in the hands of the parliament in London where our neighbour country England has nearly 90% of MP votes and where all revenues go.

  3. Tartanfever says:

    Personally, I think the IPCC’s reports cited here are way too optimistic. For instance, many scientists studying Arctic regions, particularly the Lavtev Sea area, predict that a large release of Methane thawing from the extremely shallow sea bed could bring on a sudden climate change event within a few years, not the decades often cited in reports.

    While it is important to pressure the Scottish Government on targets and to keep that pressure up, my question to Jamie, and indeed Bella is this.

    If the Scottish Government passed some legislation to curb North Sea Oil output, what do you think Westminster’s reaction would be to this ?

    1. Scott Egner says:

      I’ve read about the methane clathrates and also the experiments carried out on global dimming (terrifying).
      Regarding capping production I was wondering about this too. I reckon the Scottish govt would be swept aside by wm.

      Alternatively and applying devils advocate here, what if we demand that production is stopped altogether for environmental reasons. We are always being told that The oil is ‘worthless’ so why not turn the argument around. If it IS worthless then keep it in the ground. Oh and please fund the cleanup and decommissioning process since the proceeds of the past 5 decades disappeared into the treasury coffers and tax havens.

      Didn’t the SNP excluded oil from its calculations in 2014?

      Relying on oil for export revenue becomes far less important if Scotland makes the correct currency choice – to use its own sovereign currency.

      1. Thanks Scott – the SNP didn’t exclude oil revenues from its calculations in 2014 – a source of much criticism as its such a fluctuating and unreliable commodity – but it has done now.

        The issue of decommissioning and ‘clean up’ is key.

  4. Nick Bowles says:

    Scotland produces 1% of the world;s oil./ Whether we leave it in the ground or burn it will make no difference to the inexorable processes of climate change. Get Saudi, Russia, China to leave theirs in the ground and maybe Scotland will join them.

    Or here’s a better idea . . . let’s exploit the recent huge finds and invest 100% of the money in the world’s first planned 100% transition to a zero carbon economy. With the money released by oil over the next 10 – 145 years we can invest in large-scale tidal and floating wind projects and storage technologies that will transform Scotland.

    Or we can cut off our oily nose to spite our impoverished face. Leaving it in the ground will do the planet and Scotland no good whatsoever.

    Bit of a no-brainer really.

    1. Robert says:

      Well really Nick, the same argument could be applied to every 1% of world oil production! It’s tiny, what difference does it make? Same goes for every individual’s consumption. But they all add up. So what’s needed, obviously, are collective approaches that avoid the so-called tragedy of the commons (which never applied to the real commons, because it was rich in the kind of collective agreements that make the commons work.)

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