Nicola Sturgeon is no Maggie Thatcher of oil but we still need more vision for our grandchildren's sake - Joyce McMillan

ALEX SALMOND always did have a flair for the colourful soundbite; and this week, he aimed a particularly low blow at his successor Nicola Sturgeon, when he described her as the “Margaret Thatcher” of Scotland’s oil industry, following her statement in the Scottish Parliament that she did not favour the development of the new Cambo oil field, north-west of Scotland.

Protesters against the Cambo oil field, which sits off the north-west coast of Shetland, which is estimated to contain more than 800 million barrels of crude oil. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has come under attack after saying she doesn't believe drilling should go ahead. Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Protesters against the Cambo oil field, which sits off the north-west coast of Shetland, which is estimated to contain more than 800 million barrels of crude oil. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has come under attack after saying she doesn't believe drilling should go ahead. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The decision on whether to develop that field does not rest with the Scottish Government, of course; oil and gas licensing is a reserved matter and the UK regulator will make its final decision in due course. For some of the generation of independence supporters, though, the idea of an SNP-led Scottish government withdrawing its enthusiastic support from further oil development in Scottish waters seems unthinkable; and Alex Salmond’s statement was also warmly welcomed in those quarters where the importance of climate change is now grudgingly recognised, but where actually doing anything to reduce future carbon emissions is still dismissed as mere economic vandalism, designed to throw onto the scrapheap the 64,000 currently employed in Scotland’s oil and gas industry.

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In truth, of course, the situation today could hardly be more different from that of the early 1980’s. Then, Margaret Thatcher made a policy decision to switch away from indigenous UK coal production because it was in her view economically inefficient, and because, through its strongly unionised work force, it represented an intolerable challenge to the power of her government. She also set about the winding-down of British heavy industry, including coal production, without any systematic plan for replacing it with new industries, or for the sustained economic support of the regions most affected.

Today, by contrast, the need to move rapidly to phase out the global pumping of gas and oil, and to make deep cuts in carbon emissions by 2030, could hardly be more widely accepted or more urgent. According to the UN Environment Programme, current planned extraction of oil, gas and coal will, by 2030, be at twice the level necessary to have any hope of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade. If these plans are not drastically altered within the next half-decade, the results for future generations will be catastrophic; and yet even a modest attempt to discourage the development of a brand new oilfield, off a country which still has an oil industry delivering millions of barrels a year, is greeted with howls of pain and anger.

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In theory, of course, the oil companies know their industry has had its day, and some are pivoting rapidly towards renewable technologies. In practice, though, we still hear far too many of those discredited short-term arguments for continuing to pump oil that have already, and tragically, lost us 30 years in the fight against climate change. These range from false allegations that renewable energy cannot provide sufficient power or reliable “baseload” power, to pie-in-the-sky chat about “carbon capture” technologies that are still largely unavailable in any scaleable form. And given the issues of trust raised by the conduct of some major oil companies over the last generation - when they fully understood the science of climate change, but spent millions of dollars trying to sow doubt about it in the public mind - it would surely be wise, now, to treat their arguments on future investment with extreme caution.

For if massive funds for energy investment are now available - and the opening up of a field such as Cambo does involve massive investment, as would the currently touted new generation of nuclear power stations - then there is now very little case, in terms of speed of installation, environmental impact and job creation, for investing it in anything other than various modes of renewable energy, in most of which Scotland is exceptionally rich; and in the ever more sophisticated storage and grid networks that will enable those renewable energy sources to provide us, at last, with a truly sustainable energy system.

Already, with support from a whole raft of Scottish government initiatives, major energy companies are acknowledging and working on the extent to which the skills, workforce and technology they have developed can be adapted to this new energy system, and to all the readjustments - of our homes, communities and transport systems - that it will require; and if governments and oil companies were prepared to invest even half as much in these technologies as they are still investing in old forms of fossil fuel, that transition would already be well under way.

If Nicola Sturgeon has become an advocate for the “just transition” to a new green economy, in other words, it is not because she is ‘like Margaret Thatcher’, but because she is prepared to acknowledge that the climate crisis demands action, that a transition away from oil and gas is necessary and urgent, and that if every country makes the excuse that its contribution is too small to matter, then nothing will change.

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What she lacks, though, is perhaps the power or inclination to conjure up a final vision of the society that just transition might eventually create. For this is a change that - if well managed - could see our children and grandchildren living in a society that will be not short of power, but more secure than ever in its ability to generate its own energy; and not jobless, but rich in jobs, across our energy system, that barely existed during the age of oil. And above all, they might be free at last from the terrible fear now bearing down on our generation; the fear that in meeting our own energy needs, and sustaining our economy in its current form, we are risking the very future of human life on earth, in ways too painful and heartbreaking to imagine.

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