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Not Zero – Why Rosebank Won’t Help

Craig Dalzell

The UK Government has now approved licences for the Rosebank oil field in the north of Scotland. If opened, it will reduce the UK’s chances of meeting its Paris climate targets to zero as those targets can now only be met if no new oil fields are opened and the existing open ones are closed before they reach the point of maximum economic extraction. This policy is therefore abject and deliberate climate denial and comes off the back of a string of climate denial policies emanating from London since UK Labour showed weakness over the ULEZ story and the Tories decided they could win votes among their base by kicking green policies into the increasingly brown, parched and burning grass.

The Scottish Government had their chance to find the courage of their convictions on the future of Scottish oil and gas. They spent months equivocating and playing both sides against the middle. Which is slightly unfortunate considering that they also tried to place themselves in that middle. They spent months of telling everyone that they’d support the field but only if it passed a series of “climate checkpoints” without actually saying what those checkpoints were or whether they thought Rosebank could pass them. They didn’t say what “not supporting” the policy would mean in practice despite having various tools at their devolved disposal that could be used to take a stand against it. Now that the licences have been approved, First Minister Humza Yousaf could only register his “disappointment” at the plan without saying anything about what he’d do in response.

The UK Government and its allies are making claims about Rosebank which continue to fail any kind of reasonable test on their own grounds. Not on climate, not on jobs, not on energy security and not on emissions.

Emissions – Nearer oil is cleaner, isn’t it?

This is the core claim when it comes to drilling for oil and gas in the UK. If we create domestic supply, then we don’t need to transport oil from across the world and add in all of the transport emissions to the climate cost of the oil. It’s a reasonable argument and in many cases, for many goods, it would stack up (see our Common Home Plan’s chapter on trade for more on that) but in this case there’s a complication in that due to inadequate regulations the way that the UK allows oil to be extracted is much dirtier than many other places where we import similar products. Norway, for example, banned the flaring of gas from oil wells and therefore cut their emissions well below the point where Norwegian gas imported to the UK is cleaner than domestic gas even after transport is accounted for. Yes, hydrocarbons from leaking American fracking sites might be dirtier than our domestic gas but then, folk like Liz Truss want to bring fracking to the UK too and she apparently now either has the ear of Rishi Sunak, or at least has the ear of the rivals he’s responding to.

Energy Security – We must let supply meet demand!

One of the other climate policies that Sunak has rolled back on is on home retrofits and the decarbonisation of home heating so of course he’s going to be grasping to increase oil and gas supplies to meet the future demand that he’s creating by keeping people in cold homes with obsolete boilers. (Not that Scotland is doing much better here – give me a couple more weeks and I’ll continue the story of my own journey in trying to retrofit our house.)
It should be clear now that your cold home, your fuel poverty and much of your energy demand is entirely a matter of political choice. Proponents point to the war in Ukraine and how it caused an energy price spike but it was entirely the political choices of the UK that led you to being vulnerable to that spike. If decades of housing policy had meant you were living in a passive energy home that barely required external heating and if the price of renewable energy wasn’t fundamentally linked to gas despite no physical reason for doing so then you would not have required government help to survive last winter and would not now be wondering how you’ll cope this winter with that help almost certainly not coming back.
You won’t even get cheaper oil as a result of this decision. As large as Rosebank its products will still be sold at the global market rate and that market is still largely determined by the oil cartels like OPEC. You don’t need to be buying oil directly from warmongers and dictators to have your prices set by them. Your energy security has been made much worse by the choices that led up to the approval of Rosebank, not better.

Protecting Jobs – But not here.

I’m reminded of the Scottish Government’s bold move to ban the extraction of coal from Scotland – bold because it came a decade after the last economic extraction of coal from Scotland therefore the ban resulted in not a single mine closure or unemployed miner. I can understand the hesitancy to do the same given that oil workers are still active and in jobs. This is the point of trying to achieve a Just Transition – especially one of the kind actively advocated by the workers themselves.
Rosebank won’t do this though. It won’t protect jobs by helping them transition to the future. It’ll also do far less to protect British jobs than its proponents claim. The licence has been granted to Equinor – the Norwegian state-owned energy company. This means that they’ll very likely be shipping in their own staff especially in the areas where the jobs are dependent on the phase of the project – like prospecting and construction – or in areas that aren’t dependent on being at the location – like administration and R&D. Further, as a state-owned energy company the profits of the oil will be leaving the UK and going into the coffers of the Norwegian government allowing them to support Norwegian public services and Norwegian jobs. So in that sense, the claim is true and the licences will create jobs – just not quite in the way that the UK Government would like you to think.

Not Zero – How Green is the Black, Black Oil?

The line that tipped me right over the edge in the Rosebank licence announcement was the one that said that the licence had been granted “taking net zero considerations into account throughout the project’s lifecycle”. I would love to see any proponent of Rosebank explain how the development will be Net Zero across its lifetime. Of course, it won’t be. They are taking a very selective view of what it means to be “net zero”.
There are, broadly, three categories of climate emissions. Scope 1 emissions are the emissions created directly by a good or process. If your factory emits carbon directly as a result of its operations, the stuff coming out of the exhaust chimney is counted as Scope 1. Scope 2 is an indirect emission created as a result of the process. If your factory is entirely electrically powered, but the power generator you’re hooked up to is a coal or gas boiler, that’s a Scope 2 emission for your factory (and a Scope 1 emission for the owner of the generator). Scope 3 covers “everything else” including what the goods your factor produces are used for.
I last discussed this in reference to Edinburgh Airport who said they were committed to eliminating Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions from their buildings and ground vehicles but were not counting their Scope 3 emissions – that is, the carbon emission created by the aircraft flying into and out of the airport.
A similar trick is being played here. Rosebank operators claim that their oil rigs will be electrically powered and the electricity will be renewably sourced (eventually) but they won’t be running renewable helicopters to and from the rigs any time soon, there simply isn’t a reliable plan in place to ensure that construction and decommissioning will be “net zero” and, of course, the extracted oil isn’t just getting bottled up and put on a shelf – the vast majority of it will be burned (despite the “other uses” we have for oil). Claiming that Rosebank will be Net Zero is pretty much like claiming that your diesel car is “net zero” because the radio is powered by the battery.

What next for Scotland?

I’ve already laid out what Scotland should be doing. Equivocation time is long past over for the Scottish Government. Either they need to support this licence and accept that they, too, have abandoned climate targets and joined the ranks of climate denialism that is spreading during this critical time or they need to start actually resisting this and other new polluting policies in Scotland. We need to see a statement of intent from Scotland that no devolved planning permissions will be issued that will aid, abet or support Rosebank, that public funding will not be granted to companies involved in this and other new oil and gas, that public investments like pensions will be actively withdrawn from companies complicit in the climate emergency and that Just Transition plans will not just be maintained (as per the FM’s “disappointed” statement) but will be actively increased with a view of actively disrupting the oil and gas sector by transitioning their key personnel.
Either we’re in a climate emergency or we’re not. If the Scottish Government still believes we are, we need to see them start acting like it.

3 thoughts on “Not Zero – Why Rosebank Won’t Help”

  1. Ian Davidson

    I am not expert on energy policy & climate change. However: Politically, it could be argued that the political classes in UK/Scotland have, to some extent, made too many assumptions about public understanding of the big societal changes needed.* We have one UK Green MP and a handful of Green MSPs (whose influence on many things is disproportionate to their vote share). This does not suggest to me that UK/Scottish electorate are really engaged about climate change c.f. other issues, i.e. it is important but not necessarily existential as far as public consciousness is concerned? As we are now de facto in the run-up to a UKGE24, this is perhaps the critical, perhaps “final” opportunity for the Green New Deal for Climate, Ecology + Economy to be promoted as the key choice, both in terms of the “centre” parties but also the UK/Scottish Greens seriously contesting seats of parties/candidates who do not “sign up” to GND? If the Green MSPs really believe that climate change is existential, why do they spend so much time and energy on other issues and why are they supporting an SNP Government which won’t commit?
    I think the public have seen through the gesture politics, hence why there is as yet, no popular uprising over the apparent retreats from UK Gov?
    (*Eg: ironic that our part time family friendly Holyrood nearly had a “nervous breakdown” ‘re GRA, with long, fractious sittings just before Xmas 23, but never did so on any other issue, including Covid health emergency, unsafe public buildings etc! It is as if we don’t really take the serious existential issues seriously?!)
    I may not have expressed this well, as I say, I am no expert. However, we are where we are I think due to a general political ambivalence which still perceives climate/ecology as a minority interest which does not provide “food on the table”.** Until there is a sharper focus on the economic benefits of Green New Deal, until more folks are convinced and climate is “main-streamed” I think politicians will continue with the semantics ?
    **other than those who, like many other issues, make a good living from talking about it, whilst expecting others less well-off to bear the economic costs of adapting?

  2. A new housing development was completed in my village 10 years ago, equipped with ground-source heat pumps. Despite the life expectancy of these heat pumps being at least 25 years, I am aware that several owners have decided to replace there ground-sourced heating systems with LPG boilers. It appears they never felt the previous heating system heated their homes quickly enough or struggled to keep their homes at a comfortable temperature.
    Anecdotal stories like the above edge me to the view that we should not be planning to ban gas heating systems but should, perhaps, be investing more to develop carbon capture so we can continue using gas but also protect the climate.

    1. Robert Parker

      As far as I’m aware, carbon capture, along with SMR’s, are still basically in fairyland. Although the Chinese & Russians do have prototype SMR’s operating, the technology is still many years away from any significant rollout. Heat pumps either air or ground source do heat up homes, however, it takes days if not longer to get to an acceptable level of heat. Begs the question whether the homes were insulated to a high enough level and droughts totally eliminated allied to whether the people’s lifestyle was conducive to that form of heating!
      Obviously your neighbours have plenty of spare money to afford LPG – it’s an expensive way to heat your home
      We really must move away from fossil fuels – no I don’t like the idea either- otherwise the planet will become unsuitable for us and many other species currently living here causing our/their extinction.

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