In December 1969, the Amoco Corporation struck oil 130 miles east of the Aberdeenshire shoreline—and the axis of Scottish politics suddenly shifted.
In the years that followed, the claim that Scotland’s economy was too weak to support an independent state rapidly crumbled.
Even an aspiring British prime minister was forced to acknowledge the revolutionary impact of the North Sea.
The “oil-fired” rise of the SNP, Gordon Brown wrote in 1975, at the age of 24, was “less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation than a response to Scotland’s uneven development.”
By the early 1990s, the case for Scottish control of Scottish oil resources was unanswerable.
For a decade, Margaret Thatcher wasted peak North Sea revenues on a rising welfare bill—the inevitable (and deliberate) result of her monetarist attacks on Britain’s industrial base.
Had those revenues been strategically invested in safe assets, some economists estimate, Britain would now be in possession of a sovereign wealth fund worth upward of £450bn.
We don’t have to look far for vivid examples of what might have been.
In the 1960s, Norway was roughly as rich as Greece—a little below the European average.
Today, having carefully managed the profits from its own oil boom, it is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with much lower rates of poverty and inequality than Britain and much higher rates of overall happiness.
But it’s been half a century since Amoco first unearthed the Montrose Field—half a century—and, since then, something profound and unsettling has happened.
Last year’s IPCC report made the terms of our new reality clear.
If we stay on our current climate trajectory—four degrees of global warming over the next eight decades—millions of people around the world will be fried, flooded or starved to death, and no-one, from Edinburgh to Eritrea, will be immune from the effects of increasingly severe weather conditions.
That’s the worst case scenario. The best is only marginally better.
As journalist David Wallace-Wells explained in a viral piece for New York Magazine in October, even if we manage to limit global warming to, say, a two-degree increase by 2040, the social and environmental consequences will still be catastrophic.
“Nearly all coral reefs would die out,” he wrote. “Wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure.”
(This process has, in fact, already begun: think of the 2018 fires in California—the deadliest in the state’s history—which destroyed nearly two million acres of land, killed almost 90 people, and incinerated more than 10,000 man-made structures.)
Nicola Sturgeon casts herself as a pioneering leader in the fight against climate change.
Last summer, the Scottish government introduced a new draft Climate Change Bill that it claimed would set the “toughest” emissions reduction targets anywhere in the world.
“Our 90 per cent [reduction] target [by 2050] will be tougher even than the 100 per cent goal set by a handful of other countries,” the Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said, “because our legislation will set more demanding, legally-binding, annual targets covering every sector of our economy.”
But this isn’t strictly true.
According to analysis by The Ferret, only two countries—Morocco and The Gambia—have policies robust enough to meet the targets set by the Paris climate agreement, and Sweden plans to reach the crucial “net zero” carbon threshold by 2045, anchored by a legal obligation to update the Swedish parliament on the country’s progress every year until net-zero is achieved.
There is no equivalent deadline for carbon neutrality in the SNP’s bill.
The real problem, however, isn’t that the Scottish government could do more at the legislative level to reduce Scotland’s carbon output—although it could.
It’s that the SNP remains politically tethered to North Sea oil, even as the urgency of our climate crisis intensifies week after week, month after month, and year after year.
Last week, Holyrood debated how Scotland could facilitate a “just transition” to a carbon-neutral economy.
During the debate, MSPs from all parties acknowledged the urgency of the threat posed by climate change.
But when the Greens lodged a motion stating that the maximum economic recovery of UK oil and gas reserves—an aim supported by both the UK and Scottish governments—was incompatible with tackling climate change, the SNP voted it down, alongside Labour, the Liberals, and the Tories.
Worse still, since 2014, as North Sea revenues have crashed, the SNP has essentially reinvented itself as a champion of oil industry interests—despite the fact that industry has, in recent years, systematically laid off thousands of Scottish workers in an aggressive bid to salvage its profit margins.
In 2017, the party called on Westminster to offer financial incentives to the oil and gas sector in order to boost exploration and drilling—a move, The Guardian says, that would result in “tens of millions [of] more tonnes of CO2” being churned into the atmosphere.
In 2018, it attacked Labour for opposing a Tory plan to cut taxes for energy companies looking to extend the lifespan of existing North Sea fields.
And earlier this month, it enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of a “revival” in North Sea production.
None of this reflects the actions of a party determined, as Sturgeon claimed last year at the UN climate conference in Poland, to fulfil its “moral responsibility” to combat climate change.
It suggests, instead, that the SNP isn’t willing to take radical action in order to avert an extinction-level climate disaster.
But radical action is precisely what’s needed.
As Adam Ramsay has written (citing the work of environmentalist Bill McKibben), in 2012, the maximum amount of additional carbon dioxide that we could afford to emit globally was “565 gigatons, while the total amount of carbon in the known reserves of oil companies and oil-producing states was 2,795 gigatons.”
This means, very simply, that the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves have to remain buried, forever, if we are to stand any chance of staving-off environmental collapse.
Yet the SNP’s current policy is to drill, and to keep drilling until the oil runs dry—or until the energy companies decide that their North Sea returns are too thin to justify further investment.
This is the logic of endless extraction—and it is suicidally short-sighted, not just from an environmental perspective but from an economic one, too: there are no life-long jobs left in an industry destined for decline as the global economy shifts—at a “phenomenal” rate—towards renewables.
No one doubts that the North Sea has been a key element in the success of modern Scottish nationalism.
It’s a remarkable symbol of Scotland’s misspent economic potential, and of how different the country could be under better political leadership.
But the world has changed a lot since 1969.
Either the era of major oil extraction projects is at an end—or we are.