Today’s statement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for the “reassessment” of the opening of new oil and gas fields shows the power of public pressure. Had it not been for a couple of young activists directly asking the FM to oppose the new Cambo oil field and for the video of her side-stepped non-answer going viral I have no doubt that she would have let the decision to drill slide. We may even have been treated to the energy minister welcoming the decision. Public Pressure works though. That video made the decision to stay silent much more painful than to finally – days later – speak out against the decision to proceed. There’s a lesson for the independence movement in there.
This week, the IPCC published their latest “code red” warning about the state of the climate and the need for drastic action but we’ve known for years now that that action will include an end to oil extraction long before we’ve drilled every last drop from new and existing fields. In 2019, Friends of the Earth Scotland published their report “Sea Change” which stated that the amount of oil within the fields that the UK is currently already drilling already exceeds what is allowable under its Paris Accord obligations. To put it more bluntly, the UK literally cannot afford to open ANY new oil and gas fields if it wants to meet its climate targets. And the existing fields must be closed before they have been completely drained.
It is disappointing that Nicola Sturgeon has not followed this science when writing her letter to Boris Johnson. In it, she does not directly state that the field should not go ahead but merely that licenses issued but not yet activated “should be reassessed in light of the climate emergency…and against a robust Compatibility Checkpoint that is fully aligned without our climate change targets and obligations”. As stated, if we follow the science, we already know that these new fields would fail such a checkpoint and thus should not be allowed to go ahead. This should be said clearly. Instead, it appears that the FM doesn’t want to be the one to say it, but would really like someone else to say it for her.
It is time for a planned end to oil and gas with a definite and determined cut off. This starts with saying no to new fields and to further exploration (as Greenland has done), it also means setting a finite ceiling to the amount of oil that can be extracted from UK territory and a definite roadmap to closing existing fields as we have called for in our recent paper 21 For 21.
Energy and offshore drilling being reserved matters there are limits to what Scotland can do if and when Johnson declines Sturgeon’s request but this isn’t to say that nothing that can be done. Devolved powers were used to effectively block new nuclear power in Scotland as well as onshore fracking. The Scottish Government should immediately reassess what powers it has to frustrate any attempt by the UK to expand oil and gas extraction. This could mean using planning laws wherever infrastructure to support such expansion comes onshore. It may be possible to use regulatory powers to render it difficult to operate in Scotland. Or use devolved tax powers to make it impossible to operate profitably. Or it could be that Scotland announces that plans for independence are being accelerated in light of the demands of the climate emergency. Whatever the options are, they cannot be to simply stand at the sidelines and allow these things to happen on our watch. The Scotland that bestrides the world stage announcing “world-leading climate targets” is a very different country from one that meekly whispers “Will no one rid me of this turbulent climate emergency?”