AS I SEE IT: The ostracising of oil and gas is a dangerous game for Nicola Sturgeon, argues TERRY MURDEN
Amid all the uncertainties posed by the Covid pandemic Nicola Sturgeon has been credited with showing a steady hand. However, she may be about to throw caution to the wind by embarking on the biggest gamble of her political life in a deal with the the Green Party that threatens to colour Scottish government policy.
Talk of an alliance with the Greens has been simmering for some weeks and Ms Sturgeon’s letter to Boris Johnson on the need to “reassess” the licensing of new oil fields may be a step in that direction, although opposition to new oil developments is now part of Scottish Labour Party policy, too.
When it was announced that the COP26 climate summit was heading to Glasgow Ms Sturgeon would have seen it as an opportunity for her party to prove its, and Scotland’s, green credentials, but on her terms, not those of opposition parties who are using it to whip the government into action.
Without an overall majority at Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon knows she needs help beyond tackling the environment and at least in the Green Party she has seven MSPs who support some of the SNP’s key policies: independence, a four-day working week, higher income taxes for the well-off and abolition of council tax. Some of these may be long term goals, but with Green support they could be implemented much sooner.
While the First Minister insists there is no plan for a formal coalition – like the Labour and LibDem deal between 1999 and 2007 – concern within the SNP is that policy would end up being shaped by the Green Party as a condition of their support.
The Greens would most likely push harder in other policy areas, such as a separate currency, and a wealth tax, both of which divide opinion in SNP circles and carry the risk of alienating key sections of the party’s support.
Oil is the big one and could come to define this period of Nicola Sturgeon’s period in office more than COP26 and even independence. How ironic that the 2014 case for independence was built around the ability of big oil companies to fuel the Scottish economy; now those fossil fuel giants are being treated as the energy sector’s dinosaurs, even as pariahs.
For the Greens, oil is an enemy of the state, or at least our long term well-being. Fossil fuels would face a far shorter life span, or at least be shoved to the bottom of any government support.
Let’s not pretend that balancing the need for climate control with our need to maintain energy supplies is not a problem for all of us. We need to kick our fossil fuel habit, but oil and gas, like it or not, will be with us for decades to come. It is not just used to keep transport moving, it is fundamental to much of what is manufactured in our factories. Without it, the economy would slow considerably.
Ms Sturgeon has conveniently thrown the burden of deciding on the future of further oil fields on Boris Johnson’s shoulders, insisting that licensing is a UK government reserved matter. That may have got her off the hook with the oil workers who might have been unimpressed if she had declared unequivocally that Cambo had to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Even so, her call for a “reassessment” of licensing is almost as good as saying she is against it. It’s now in the drawer marked “something must be done” and, unfortunately, it is difficult to predict with any certainty how Mr Johnson will respond.
In the meantime, Ms Sturgeon cannot hide behind the Westminster curtains. The climate emergency is clearly a priority for all governments and the switch to renewables is gathering pace. But Ms Sturgeon’s energy strategy must acknowledge that oil and gas is still one of Scotland’s biggest industries and has a big role to play in the years ahead. Any move to downgrade its role would not only damage a valuable sector it would leave Scotland at the mercy of imports to keep the economy functioning.
The oil and gas industry will itself play a significant role in the transition to clean energy. Cutting off its basic source of revenue – the black stuff still in the ground – will not help to achieve that goal.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business