Cambo - no justification but

CAMBO or Post-Oil Economy

Robin McAlpine – 2nd December 2021

In the debate about tackling the environmental crises we risk taking what is really quite simple and complicating it (like finding corporate work-arounds for insulating houses) and taking what is pretty complicated and pretending like it’s simple. Scotland’s relationship to the oil and gas sector is a very good example of the latter.

You probably know the story, or at least you probably think you know. Either you think that oil and gas extraction must end as quickly as is humanly possible or you think that we need cars and jobs so need to ‘get real’. These two views do not engage with each other constructively.

So is it a case of picking a side? That is really the problem; this isn’t one debate, it’s loads of them and you need to break it down carefully to find coherent answers (as far as we have coherent answers). The question of the new Cambo oilfield is inextricably entwined with all of this.

Let’s start with the corporate greenwash – that we need to keep pumping all the oil we can out of Scotland’s seabed because otherwise we’ll just have to import it, which it is claimed is worse. This is so trite and vapid as an argument it’s really quite insulting.

Scotland produces oil which is known as ‘Brent Crude’ – a particularly light and clean kind of oil. Light means that it produces lighter ‘fractions’ of oil-based products but not heavier ones. This means that Scotland (and the UK) is basically self-sufficient on petrol. We make much more than we use. 

But we produce very little of the heavier fractions of fuel like diesel. Britain imports almost all of its diesel and will almost certainly continue to do so for as long as we need diesel. Likewise natural gas for heating – we will import most of that because we don’t really produce it. With other heavy oil-based products (especially things like bitumen for roads), we can’t even nearly be self-sufficient.

In fact if you trace the whole lifecycle of Scotland’s oil, it is likely that only 12 or 13 per cent of that which is produced will end up being used anywhere I the UK – over 70 per cent is exported in its crude form and nearly half of what’s left in processed form. So the idea that we need to ‘keep on pumping’ just to stand still is not even nearly true.

However, there are an equal number of problems with the ‘stop oil now’ position too. About 30 per cent of our refined oil is used for purposes other than fuel – plastics, medicines, fertiliser and so on. These all carry with them their own implications; for example, plastics don’t produce greenhouse gases if not burned but contribute to dangerous plastic pollution, fertilisers are doing serious damage to waterways but we’re wholly reliant on them…

Put as simply as it can be, ethylene is not propylene is not polyethylene is not polypropylene is not ethanol is not LPG is not gasoline is not kerosene is not aviation fuel is not diesel is not bitumen – and so on.

Each of these is made in different ways, with different applications, with different kinds of environmental impact, with different options for replacement and with different levels of current need. There isn’t a single sweep-of-the-hand way to make all this go away.

And then we have the economic impact. Here the numbers need to be treated with great caution as most emanate from the oil and gas industry itself – depending on how you look at it, different aspects of Scotland’s oil and gas can look very significant economically or really pretty insignificant.

But if where we are now is a complicated picture, where we need to get to is probably much more straightforward. We absolutely need to get to a place where we are no longer burning any oil and gas products whatsoever. We need to stop producing all short-life plastic and bluntly all but the very longest-lived plastic (such as buried pipework). Plastic is a pollutant that never, ever stops polluting.

As for other applications, again it is varied but not impossible to envisage where we need to get to. As far as possible we should want to move to biodegradable alternatives to almost all of our current uses. But with some uses, such as bitumen for roads, we are nowhere near a viable solution just now. We can wish it otherwise, but that won’t help.

Where does all of this leave us? First there is one fairly straightforward conclusion we can draw from the above; there is absolutely no responsible justification for opening up the Cambo oilfield. We already export heading for 90 per cent of our oil-based products so you don’t need a maths degree to note that producing even more than we do isn’t going to ‘offset’ anything, simply add to the world’s problems.

Cambo isn’t going anywhere; if we make an absolute pigs ear of transitioning to a low-carbon economy and find ourselves in need of petrochemicals for longer than we hoped then (a) start praying and (b) we can exploit the Cambo field if and when that happens. The headlong rush to Cambo right now is pure greed, not need.

This takes us to the second problem – industry simply does not want to make a transition to a post-carbon economy. It spends a lot of money blocking and hindering a transition – what is says in public is pure misinformation, what it does in private is lobby hard against reform.

And in the face of this, democracy and government seems pitifully weak. Look at the propaganda from the oil industry, look at the propaganda from government (very much including the Scottish Government) and play a game of spot the difference. You’ll struggle. Government parrots oil industry talking points.

What this means in effect is that we are doing next to nothing to find the kinds of solutions we need to find. We will need less natural gas immediately if we insulate houses properly. But at the current rate Scotland won’t have completed this task until well into the next millennium. The moves to adapt farming and so be less reliant on petrochemically-based fertilisers is negligible. 

And when it comes to domestic transport, the transition to electric (and hydrogen) vehicles is purely wishful thinking. Charging infrastructure rolls out at a snail’s pace, the rest is reliant on you doing all the heavy lifting as a consumer.

But in Scotland there is an overwhelming indicator of what is wrong; the economy of the North East. It is now 20 years since talk began in earnest of building an alternative energy industry to compensate for declining oil and gas, but it largely remains talk.

In fact to hear politicians still saying that it ‘will’ be OK to end oil and gas ‘one day’ because a new economy for the North East is coming (again) is worryingly hollow given the past failures in this area.

This is at the heart of the question. The role of oil and gas in the modern world is not a single, simple one but an all-pervasive and complex one. That means that removing oil and gas from our economy needs multifaceted and properly-planned solutions which will take time to feed through.

Neither the Scottish Government nor the UK Government (much less a multilateral initiative like COP) are even nearly presenting credible, comprehensive plans for getting to a post-oil world. Without those we will fail to achieve change – the rest is just noise.

There is no justification for Cambo so let’s not even consider it. But if we don’t start planning properly for a post-oil world now, it won’t be possible. That’s about as simple as this whole story gets.

10 thoughts on “CAMBO or Post-Oil Economy”

  1. So we are going to use hydrocarbons in the future, and surely inevitably much of that for fuel? But Cambo contains the wrong type of hydrocarbon, so it should be left in the ground? We don’t create demand for oil exports and have a need for oil and gas imports, but the argument made here appears to be that Cambo should not be developed as a matter of principle. As a matter of fact, the Scottish landmass could become zero carbon tomorrow and the direct impact on climate change would be negligible. You might just as well go and pray.

    NE Scotland seems to get all the stick and none of the carrot. The large number of people employed here in the energy sector are being hung out to dry. Again! As Robin points out it appears far easier to preach than to put the content of that into practice in the “real” economy. Moving towards zero carbon requires a balanced, pragmatic approach that maintains a stable if constantly adapting economy, based on an informed vision for the destination and a clear, robust roadmap as to how we will get there. Where is it?

    There is a great skills base here in the NE, with some well remunerated employees and contractors, but that isn’t the same for anything like everyone. To categorise this as greed is utterly hypocritical. To simply match the defined benefit pensions of our public sector, on average, about 40% needs to be added to private sector pay. You don’t hear much about that in public sector dominated Scotland. We will never have a stable Scottish economy until this huge imbalance is addressed by fundamental reform and restructuring of what is a colonial structure of government. The NE does feel like a colony at times, subject to the whims of our political masters.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      OK, a lot in that to address Bryan. Let me start with Cambo. What I’m saying here is that if the argument in favour of Cambo is that its exploitation will in some way reduce global carbon emissions because it will offset imports which are even worse for carbon emissions then that argument is very clearly false. There is no version of that argument that can be sustained. If you want to argue that yes, exploiting Cambo will be really damaging to the world and accelerate our progress to an unsustainable planet but everyone else is doing it and it’s a source of big money for the North East so let’s keep doing it, that argument is valid. So the oil and gas industry should make that argument and not greenwash it with the measurably-false argument that it would be better, not worse, to open up Cambo.

      Then we have to address whether Scotland should bother with climate change at all or simply accept that if we are ‘first mover’ with any of this we’ll harm domestic interests so we should only do things that tackle climate change which have no negative impact on existing financial interests in Scotland then OK, it’s an argument and again it’s coherent. But I certainly disagree with it. Likewise the argument we can get to zero tomorrow – household heating and transport emissions won’t disappear quickly – is too much optimism. If we’re still petrol-powered in 20 years we have serious problems. Even for Scotland this is going to take effort. There isn’t a single action that can be taken by anyone anywhere which can’t be categorised as ‘a drop in the ocean in global terms’. But oceans are made of drops – that’s how they form. No drops, no ocean.

      But where I’m 100 per cent with you is that we are massively culpable in Scotland for failing to make ‘just transition’ a reality for the North East. Believe me, on almost every occasion I talk in or around Aberdeen this issue comes up. In fact it has done for a long time now. The North East gets soundbites, not action and so in reality if I lived in the North East and particularly if I relied on the oil and gas industry for my income, I wouldn’t believe a word of it either. For most people in Scotland the abject failure to capture renewable jobs is abstract but for the North East it is a very good reason to reject the closure of an industry. I am personally more than a little angry about the wasted two decades we’ve just come through.

      Finally though, you also need to spread that blame around. The usual rhetoric-not-action of government in Scotland (this covers at least three administrations) is enormously culpable for all of the above – but trace the path back and you’ll find that it is because the oil and gas industry lobbied really, really hard to prevent green transition. I linked to an article in the piece above which has more detail but ask yourself why Scotland’s hydrogen strategy is based on oil and gas and not green hydrogen. Ask yourself why subsidies to oil and gas outstrip subsidies to marine energy by such large factors. Ask yourself why Aberdeen’s ‘green energy hub’ is petrol-based and will obliterate local green space. Scottish Governments have been weak and complacent but the policy environment in the North East is absolutely the one the oil and gas industry wants it to be.

      This is precisely the same argument that comes when I talk about land reform in some parts of Scotland. The system is broken but the people who are in the system rely on the system and so defend the system even though the system is bad because they don’t believe positive change is possible and a history of evidence that the promises of change will quickly melt away. That cycle never breaks until we break it. That is what I’m arguing here – that to break the energy system we have we need to start being realistic and planning for the next system or the concerns raised by you here will remain legitimate and a substantial barrier to a sustainable future.

      Hope that makes sense,


  2. Bryan Stuart

    Thanks Robin, I certainly take on board that halting climate change is a personal responsibility and when I recently checked my footprint I was pleased to note it was well below average. It is something I factor into almost everything I do these days, and surely the more widely spread that approach is, the better. The same with covid, but what I don’t subscribe to is dogma and gesturing by our leaders (elected or hereditary). The fact is big states need to take concerted action for everyone else’s efforts to have impact. As with covid, it is only globally effective action that really matters in the medium/long term. You know far more about lobbying than I do, and I would simply ban paid lobbying firms from having any parliamentary access. Just leave it to trade associations and trade unions, or individuals and businesses etc. I am also very uneasy about the apparently symbiotic relationship there is between politicians and charities.

    My view is simple: you don’t break the cycle by destroying other people’s jobs and denying that has consequences. I think we would agree that the sensible approach is for government to promote and guide economic development towards zero carbon in a way that strengthens our economy, instills resilience, and encourages individual responsibility. Meanwhile the SG is suggesting we should all be installing heat pumps. That’s ignorant nonsense, and just try telling it to thousands of folk here in Aberdeenshire who have had no mains electricity for almost a week! Resilience comes with the autonomous home, perhaps backed up by a local grid with national and international interconnections, but the last thing our current crop of politicians would want to do is put “power”, in any form, back into the hands of individuals and communities.

    Big Oil May still have a lot of clout, but it is our centralised political system and form of governance that allows that to happen. If you want to reverse this, then empower communities so as to let them effectively challenge it (and our political masters).

    1. Robin McAlpine

      I of course agree with the vast majority of what you say here. A couple of points – on the ‘change can’t destroy jobs’, it’s better to look at that in a slightly different way. Change ALWAYS destroys jobs but also creates new ones. The horse and cart industry lobbied against automobiles… In reality technology and practice destroy jobs all the time (AI and automation is doing it to a whole new sector). We will run out of oil eventually anyway so oil and gas jobs simply are not forever. This is the big political point – one ideology says ‘so we should do something about it’ and one says ‘it’s the market that will do something about it’. So basically it’s either ‘shock therapy’ for Aberdeen or an industrial strategy. Unfortunately the Scottish Government talks like it is in the latter camp but is really in the former – the market alone is driven the economy of the North East. So either that economy will drive us onwards down a path that will do potentially existential harm or we need to take coordinated action. I’m arguing (strongly) for the latter – for acting now to ensure that oil and gas does stop as soon as we can stop it but that we do it in a way that doesn’t leave us without essential products or cause mass unemployment. But to do that I believe we need to start arguing AGAINST oil and gas to enable a shift past it. I suspect that the oil and gas sector will be just peachy with abandoning Aberdeen as soon as it is not making them profits. Let’s preempt that with a proper plan.

      On the ‘whose responsibility’, here I have become quite militant. One of my personal mottos is ‘look round the room – if you can’t work out whose responsibility it is, it’s yours’. Saying ‘there is inaction and so until there is…’ if applied universally is going to destroy us. I believe we need to identify the level at which change can be made and make the change. It is not the multinational level (it can’t bind anyone) and it isn’t the local level (you can’t fix this without the powers). It’s the nation state level. So we all need to stop moaning about what wee Helen is or isn’t doing at the other side of the classroom, get our heads down and get on with the work. It kind of is that simple for me – do it or don’t, but if you don’t, please have the decency to save us from hearing pitiful excuses. Projected to an international level that would at least be honest…


  3. David Hutchison

    Very valid points raised in your piece Robin however one issue that may not be clear is that the skills required to exploit such deep water resources as Cambo and the like have been a long time in the making and the supply chain supporting that may not be extant when the need for further hydrocarbon resources are required to make up the balance of energy production and plastics demand. This loss of skilled people had a direct effect on the costs in the industry post-downturn and the impact of the loss of such highly paid work will have a profound social impact on the North East if there is no transition. Just look at the coal industry for example.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      David – I love your point here. I find it really fascinating. We think that ‘knowledge’ once acquired is ‘always possessed’, that all progress is additive not subtractive. It’s simply not true. It’s taken us hundreds of years to work out how they built the pyramids and we still couldn’t do it in the way they did. Or take the Saturn rocket series – the information on how to build that was stored on digital storage which can no longer be read so no-one knows how they work. We forget knowledge all the time.

      But it might be worth me clarifying my point here – in the event that we reach a scale of domestic or global emergency where there is such a shortage of oil and gas that we are at serious risk then in that nightmare scenario the oil is there. I’m not saying ‘leave Cambo for later’. I’m saying ‘leave Cambo altogether and never touch it, but if in the future there is any desperate need, it hasn’t gone anywhere’. To my reading of things the pace at which we need to do things and the pace at which current oil supplies are running out are two timeframes which can coexist if we start to act now. If we get on with it now we can get beyond the need ever to talk about Cambo again. If we really need to talk about Cambo again it will be an emergency of a scale which means we’ll find supply chains or create them from scratch as part of a national emergency.

      When I say that we need a proper plan to free ourselves from petrochemicals it’s most certainly not because I am envisaging a future with petrochemicals. It’s because I’m envisaging a world without them and am just trying to be realistic about the effort it’ll take to achieve that. Unless we make the aforementioned pig’s ear of that, we will never need Cambo so it need absorb no more debate time…


  4. Julian Smith

    Bryan mentioned heat pumps. I’ve got concerns about the frenzy building up around this. Almost all of us have one or more heat pumps already. We call them fridges and freezers. They don’t cost that much to run but they don’t do much of a job heating the kitchen or the garage either. I know that, being refrigerators, their efficiency is over 100%. But is the heat they dump not relatively low grade, so they need to run for longer periods of time than conventional boilers? The advertising seems to suggest you just replace your gas boiler with a heat pump, with some help from a Government Grant. Evidence I have from the previous Green Deal scheme is that this will make little or no difference to energy consumption unless existing systems and levels of insulation are improved substantially, but will make a great deal of money for opportunists. Heat pumps seem to be fairly complicated machines with all the same risks of going wrong that you find with fridges and freezers. They must have a substantial manufacturing carbon footprint. Some, if not all, will use a Freon coolant, made from oil, not very environmentally friendly. I fear that heat pumps are just the latest scam to be inflicted on a gullible public.
    I have not seen any research into the success of the previous Green Deal Scheme and I think it would desirable if the previous scheme were evaluated before launching into a new initiative.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      We are really quite sceptical about Air Source Heatpumps (ASH) Julian. I’ve pointed out before that the big advantage with ASH over the alternatives is that you can pass the whole cost onto the consumer. It is not the best solution for heating, it is the best solution for heating that involves the government not putting its hand in its pocket. But they are greatly over-sold. One study suggested an efficiency rating of 50 per cent – i.e. they would produce only two times the heat that the electricity they use would produce anyway. For £15k installation that’s a pretty poor performance. And of course when you lose your electricity, you lose your heating as well. It is a poor solution that is punted mainly by neoliberals who are desperate to keep government out of paying for climate change transition and of electricity generators who are licking their lips at all the ‘trapped’ customers this will bring their way.


  5. Julian makes an interesting point and it leads me on to a different problem that needs addressing if we are ever to succeed in transitioning to a zero carbon future.

    The trouble with heat pumps is that despite being vastly more efficient than gas central heating they run on electricity. Joule for Joule electricity is enormously more expensive than gas so a badly designed heat pump can end up being a lot more expensive than the gas boiler it replaces. This is partly because we have decarbonised so much if our electricity generation. Or to look at it another way gas is still being massively subsidised by permitting off-balance-sheet externalities such as CO2.

    Heat pumps are tricky, not because electricity is too expensive, but because gas is too cheap.

    We could correct that overnight but it would drive millions of already precarious households into fuel poverty.

    It is always important to identify the real problem before you can arrive at a workable solution.

    Here it is that fuel prices need to rise, a lot, but the burden will fall on those least able to pay or to afford the capital investment necessary to transition to more efficient technologies.

    All things being equal the affluent will always consume more energy than the rest of us.

    Part of the solution must be a National programme of upgrading heating and insulation to ensure there is a level playing field and a system of charging for energy that ensures that the wealthy pay more for the extra they consume in order to bear the cost of that transformation in a just manner.

    How that is achieved is a matter for discussion but it is well within the envelope of the powers devolved to Holyrood.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      This gets even more complicated Chris. As I suggested above, ASHs may be roughly twice as efficient as electricity, but electricity is three times as expensive as gas. So you can easily pay £15k and still see a 50 per cent increase in your fuel bills. This is because ASH are designed for (and are fine in) highly efficient buildings that don’t need a lot of heat. Fit a ASH to a modern eco house and they’re fine. Stick them on a drafty old flat and they need to produce so much heat they rely on a lot of straight electric top-up. Plus they need maintenance and repair and will have to be replaced eventually. And that isn’t all the cost – if we are going to convert effectively half of our current gas usage into the electrical equivalent, billions will need to be spent on extra electricity generation (to meet the need) and on grid reinforcement so that the grid doesn’t keep falling over under the massive new load. It is a bog-standard trick of free market economics where you simply ignore all the ‘external’ and lifetime costs and pretend that a one-off £15k is all it takes to fix the problems. It isn’t – that’s basically a flat-out con.

      And of course, this is being sold heavily by people who make a lot of money from the kit, installation and electricity demand. They are noticeably NOT selling a need for a proper and comprehensive home insulation scheme. There should be some VERY tough questions asked about this ‘magical’ solution because we’re sleep-walking into a transition which is locking us into a future we should be very suspicious of.


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