Leaders: Change the only constant in oil industry

TURMOIL in the North Sea oil industry has certainly focused minds in the Treasury and, in the Budget last month, produced a series of tax breaks designed to lessen the potentially devastating impact of the low oil price.

Feelings toward the industry have jumped between positive and negative the past few months. Picture: Hemedia

Analysts concluded that the various tax cuts and allowances announced by George Osborne would hand the industry a lifeline estimated at £13 billion. In the process, it would save tens of thousands of jobs, many of them in the north-east of Scotland.

That news was met with sighs of relief in Aberdeen. There was a sense that the industry had dodged a bullet, and that work could now continue on ensuring the extraction of North Sea oil was a thriving Scottish industry for decades to come.

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But yesterday’s news of a merger between oil giant Royal Dutch Shell and Britain’s BG group shows that there are wider forces at work in the oil industry that are beyond the influence of Scottish or UK politicians.

Scottish and UK government ministers yesterday welcomed the move, interpreting it as a sign that there were still investment opportunities in the North Sea. Comments from Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser were typical of the upbeat mood the politicians tried to strike: “It shows yet again the North Sea is open for business and can remain sustainable for some time to come with the help of the UK’s broad shoulders.”

But it is misleading to present this merger as unalloyed good news. Company officials estimated the potential for job losses as a result of the merger as “quite a few hundred” globally, and it remains to be seen how many of those would be in the UK.

It must be borne in mind that Shell is already cutting jobs in the North Sea, last month confirming 250 posts would go. Few expect these losses to be the last.

This is a takeover that has been on the cards for some time. And it may not be the last. There is much speculation about the future of BP in an industry that seems to be in one of its periodic states of flux.

Consolidation happens in all industries all of the time. It has its own logic - removing administrative overlap and capacity-sapping competition. But the low oil price gives an added impetus and rationale for a leaner and more sustainable industry.

Experienced old hands in the oil business are not particularly fazed by all this. They have lived through high prices and low prices; stability and war; the fall of regimes and markets and the emergence - sometimes overnight - of new ones.

The only constant in the oil industry is change.

And yet there is an awareness in the North Sea industry that Britain’s remaining oil deposits need careful management if they are to produce the fullest possible return for the oil companies and, ultimately, the Exchequer.

The euphemism about the North Sea sector is “mature”. But we are not yet scraping the bottom of the barrel.

More bookshops, please

EDINBURGH’s role as UNESCO City of Literature was hard-won, and is an achievement of which the city can be truly proud.

Scotland’s capital is a many-layered pleasure for anyone who loves books - whether centuries-old classics by RLS or Sir Walter Scott, or the poems of Norman MacCaig, or more modern connections with the likes of Ian Rankin and JK Rowling.

But as yet there is no undisputed centre of attention for the visiting bibliophile. The plan being discussed for a literary quarter centred on a section of the Royal Mile is therefore a sensible one, that deserves support.

And yet, there is a problem. This is a literary quarter without any second-hand bookshops.

It is all very well having publishers, quangos, storytelling centres and a poetry library. But a literary quarter without bookshops is like having a beer festival without beer.

What every lover of books desires is a stolen hour spent browsing the worn spines of pre-loved volumes, that give a window on the lives of previous owners as well as the writers themselves.

True, there are excellent second-hand bookshop at the top of Victoria Street and further out on the Bridges. And the excellent bookseller Blackwell’s is in a time-honoured spot at the heart of the University.

But on the stretch of the Royal Mile in question there are plenty of places to buy a pair of celtic earrings or a polyester kilt, but none to purchase a second-hand copy of Heart of Midlothian.

We heartily welcome the proposal for a literary quarter in the heart of Edinburgh. But it cannot be focused just on the book industry. It has to be focused on actual books.