Last autumn I gave evidence to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee in their inquiry into “the Future of the Oil and Gas Industry”. With me were professors of climate change, energy and engineering for the token climate change session in a process which mostly heard from the oil industry and their mates. The committee published their report yesterday and it is clear that we wasted our time.
We were speaking just two days after the publication of a report from the world’s climate scientists on the terrible state the world will be in at 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, and how much worse things would be at 2C. They did say we have time to stabilise temperatures, but only if we embark on a programme of “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented” change.
The committee’s report is desperately disappointing and pretty much the same as any group of MPs would have written about oil and gas any time in the last four decades – there is a bright future for the industry and the government should help them get every last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea. The report has only the most trivial nod to climate change, yet we know that at least 80 per cent of fossil fuels have to stay in the ground.
A range of oily interests had made written submissions and given evidence in previous sessions. Amazingly, not one of them made any meaningful mention of climate change. The best they could do was talk about the carbon emissions from extracting oil and gas, but not at all about the consequences of actually burning it. The committee members have fallen for this trick and their toughest recommendation is to simply urge the industry to shave a bit off the three per cent of UK carbon dioxide emissions that come from extraction, while ignoring the 91 per cent of our emissions that come from actually burning oil and gas.
In evidence, the UK minister suggested the industry could still be there in 30 to 40 years. One submission from the industry talked about North Sea operations in 50 years’ time. If we are to play our part in reducing global emissions that figure has to be more like 10 to 15 years.
The get-out-of-jail free card is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology which may be technically feasible but is certainly not economically viable. Two failed government competitions over more than a decade have resulted in no CCS. Even the Scottish Government only includes it as a possibility in its climate and energy plans sometime in the mid 2030s, which is too late to help meet climate targets.
Climate change is an existential crisis for human civilisation and this report could have marked a turning point by acknowledging that we need to leave most of the fossil fuels we know about where they are. Instead it fully sanctions the industry to continue to fry the planet.
The oil industry’s continued denial of the need for change is not really surprising. But those who should be leading us out of this crisis are in denial about the necessary scale of change. The oil industry must be laughing all the way to the bank but all of us would feel the consequences of this failure to take climate change seriously. What we really need is an immediate halt to all new exploration, a serious plan to phase out existing production, an industrial plan for the creation of decent jobs in a new, renewable energy powered economy, and crucially, a just transition for workers and communities currently reliant on the fossil fuel industry.
Dr Richard Dixon is the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland