Leaders: North Sea oil predictions have to be based on facts | Coal clean-up must continue

Fergus Ewing. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Fergus Ewing. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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FERGUS Ewing has been a well-regarded minister for energy, tourism and the economy.

So his startling prediction that North Sea oil and gas production will continue for the rest of the century commands attention. However, not all the attention will take this prediction at face value. For Mr Ewing appears to have developed truly astonishing powers of foresight, capable of seeing well beyond all previous studies and academic work on North Sea oil production and reserves.

It is certainly fair that the Yes campaign should question the assertions of those who have predicted the demise of North Sea oil and dismissed the independence case on the strength of these. Recent new discoveries should help to ensure that oil will continue to flow for a considerable time yet. But how long can the definition of “considerable” be credibly stretched? And where are the facts and figures to back the Energy Minister’s assertion of production stretching to the year 2099?

Mr Ewing’s claim was made when he led a delegation of Scottish companies to the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, Texas. He used new oil discoveries in the Clair Field to back up his “personal view” that production would continue for at least another nine decades. He said BP has estimated it will continue to produce until 2055 and that “if the right policies are pursued” oil and gas production “will continue for the rest of the century”.

Such optimism does not appear to be shared by colleagues. A Cabinet paper published earlier this year revealed that finance secretary John Swinney had acknowledged oil revenue was in decline and the volatility of oil prices meant there was “considerable uncertainty” over how much cash would be generated by the industry.

The most recent activity survey by industry body Oil and Gas UK estimated the North Sea would still provide 70 per cent of Britain’s oil and gas needs in 2040, but did not look further into the future than that.

And the prediction goes well beyond estimates provided by the most respected academic in the field, Alex Kemp, professor of petroleum economics at Aberdeen University. His most recent research paper concluded there could be production in 2050, “but that would be really quite, quite small”. Production in 2050 may be so small, he added, that “you wonder if the infrastructure would be economic”.

While Mr Ewing said he was expressing a personal view, he is a senior minister in the SNP administration and as such under an obligation to provide facts and figures to back up such assertions. Without these, they have little credibility. What the debate needs now are hard facts, or at the very least, predictions underpinned by industry and academic research. Even to predict as far out as 2050 is a brave distance for any energy economist. To reach out to 2099 without a validating point will not convince the doubters.

Coal clean-up must continue

Landscape is a critical part of our environment and heritage. The days when mining operators could simply leave behind scarred hills and waste spoil once extraction had ceased are long gone. Social and environmental obligations are long established. So it is troubling to report today communities in South Lanarkshire are struggling with the blight left by Scottish Coal’s incomplete restoration of open cast mining operations abandoned years ago. Because the company is now in administration there are fears that past agreements on restoration will not be enforced and that swathes of countryside will remain blighted by rocks, pools of slurry and abandoned equipment.

This unsightly mess is also exacting a social cost by way of migration, shop closures, shrinking schools and houses that cannot be sold. And so long as the opencast scars remain it will be extremely difficult for these communities to attract new employment to their areas.

While it should be recognised that much restoration has been done, it is unacceptable in Scotland today that the job is incomplete, with the result that large areas are not properly restored and nearby communities are effectively abandoned. For here there is surely a social as much as legal obligation. Local authorities have a duty to see that past agreements are honoured by Scottish Coal’s parent company which is still trading. The Scottish Government should also be vigilant to ensure that responsibility for clean-ups is not avoided.

It would certainly be unacceptable for wind farms to be left to rust and rot once they have ceased power generation. But complacency and inaction in south Lanarkshire would set a worrying precedent.