The Scottish National Party (SNP) burst onto the British political scene in the early 1970s campaigning under the punchy separatist slogan of “It’s Scotland’s Oil” — a reference to the vast reservoirs of oil and gas recently discovered beneath the North Sea waters around Aberdeenshire.
But five decades on, faced with an accelerating climate crisis, a prolonged slump in global oil prices, and widespread redundancies in the carbon sector, Scotland’s nationalist movement is beginning to reassess its historic relationship with fossil fuels.
As support for Scottish independence hits record highs and the likelihood of a second referendum on exiting the U.K. grows, this realignment is being driven by younger SNP activists inspired by international demands for a Green New Deal to combat the climate crisis.
“We have to move away from oil and gas and invest in renewables, like offshore wind,” said Roza Salih, a prominent Glasgow-based independence campaigner.
Salih is a member of the SNP’s Common Weal group, an internal platform lobbying to push the party’s economic and environmental policies to the left.
Last week, the SNP — which has run Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh, for the past 13 years — finalized its list of candidates to fight next May’s crucial Scottish parliamentary elections.
One-third of them — 11 candidates in total — were affiliates or supporters of Common Weal and back the group’s call for a ‘just transition’ away from extractive industries and toward cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy production.
Common Weal’s goals are broadly consistent with those of SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon styles herself as an international climate leader in the mould of Canada’s Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.
At the SNP’s annual conference in April 2019, she declared a climate emergency, lauded the recent spate of climate strikes led by high school students, and pledged that Scotland would “live up” to its responsibilities in the battle against global warming.
Ahead of next autumn’s COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, her ambitious carbon reduction targets have even earned praise from global environmental campaigners like Al Gore.
But she and her party are also accused of contradictory messaging on the issue. Just like in the 1970s, the SNP’s economic case for independence at the 2014 referendum rested strongly on projected revenues from extracting North Sea oil. There was no push from the party to keep the resource under the sea where it could not impact the global climate — as scientists have advocated.
Sturgeon’s own words have been thrown back at her by protesters who, despite her green rhetoric, doubt that an SNP-led independent Scotland would be able to resist burning through what remains of North Sea oil stocks.
In a speech to the Oil and Gas UK conference in 2017 she noted that the North Sea may contain up to 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves. “Our primary aim – and I want to underline and emphasis this – our primary aim is to maximise economic recovery of those reserves,” she said.
She said the industry’s skills and technology would be useful in the development of renewables, but added, “the Scottish Government will continue to support the oil and gas sector as strongly as we possibly can.”
Echoing Sturgeon, the party at large has struggled to shake its long-standing and politically formative ties to the North Sea oil sector.
In 2017, Kirsty Blackman, the SNP MP for Aberdeen North, criticized the U.K. government for moving at a “glacial pace” in its efforts to reduce taxes for oil and gas companies.
In 2019, Maureen Watt, the party’s MSP for Aberdeen South, welcomed an industry study suggesting that another 12 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from Scottish waters by 2050 — the final cut-off point, according to the UN, for the halving of global greenhouse emissions.
Until recently, the SNP was committed to a policy of ‘maximum economic extraction’ from the U.K. continental shelf, meaning that it would support North Sea oil and gas drilling until the practice was no longer commercially viable.
Speaking to POLITICO, SNP politician Stephen Flynn refused to confirm if this policy remained part of the party’s energy strategy, adding that in the future, Scottish government support for oil and gas would be conditional on businesses in the sector “contributing to a secure and inclusive energy transition.”
“The economy of Aberdeen and the wider region is inextricably linked to the North Sea,” he said. “It’s vital that we see a sustainable transition that protects jobs.”
The left of the independence movement wants the SNP to conclusively ditch its commitment to maximum economic extraction — even if that means abandoning what remains of the North Sea’s non-renewable assets.
Miriam Brett worked as an economic advisor to the SNP in the House of Commons between 2016 and 2017 and stood as a candidate for the party in the 2017 U.K. general election. She thinks a comprehensive industrial response to climate change, geared around the interests of Scotland’s some 100,000 oil and gas workers, should lie at the heart of the SNP’s economic vision for independence.
“The climate crisis is the single biggest threat facing our future — it needs to be prioritized,” she said. “We need to talk seriously about how we wind down the fossil fuel industry in a way that is fair, particularly for oil communities.”
There are signs that the party’s leadership’s lingering nostalgia for North Sea carbon is starting to fade. In 2014, Alex Salmond, the nationalist leader at the time, argued that Scotland was on the verge of an “oil boom” worth up to £57 billion in tax revenues.
However, in 2015, global oil prices crashed and Scotland’s projected deficit skyrocketed, prompting the party to overhaul its economic strategy.
The 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission Report, chaired by the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, concluded that oil revenues should be treated as a “windfall” for future generations instead of being “baked into” Scotland’s annual fiscal projections.
Since then, demands for Scottish ownership of North Sea oil — once such a powerful rallying cry for the nationalist cause — have drifted into the background of Scotland’s constitutional debate, eclipsed by the more immediate challenges posed by Brexit and COVID-19.
The coronavirus crisis and resulting global economic slump have compounded job losses in U.K. oil and gas. At least 7,500 North Sea employees have been made redundant since the onset of the pandemic in March and industry figures expect another wave of lay-offs in the coming months.
Scotland — which, by some estimates, possesses 25 percent of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal resources and 60 percent of the UK’s onshore wind capacity — is well-placed to absorb high-skilled workers into the sustainable energy sector.
With an election and, possibly, a second independence referendum looming, Scotland’s deep links to the carbon economy are on course to become a major political fault-line within the nationalist movement.
Craig Berry, the founder of the SNP’s Common Weal group, believes his party should seize on the campaigning rhetoric of the 1970s — but update the language and the policy ideals for the 21st century.
“The messaging [from that period] still rings true and is something we can build upon,” he said.
“But instead of going out and saying ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, we need to go out and say, ‘It’s Scotland’s hydrogen’ or ‘It’s Scotland’s renewables.’”
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