Brian Wilson: There is no virtuous alternative to producing our own North Sea gas

LEAVE aside the current drama on the borders of Ukraine and ask yourself the question. Was it ever sensible to make western Europe so dependent on Russian gas? I don’t think so now and I didn’t think so 20 years ago.

That wasn’t because I am anti-Russian which I am not or through some premonition about how they would use that power. It was just common sense to recognise that a very large country with a bundle of grievances and a limitless natural resource might use it politically at some point.

In Scotland, the UK and much of Europe, that common sense was suspended because the over-riding priority for “green” politics was to run down nuclear power without much regard for what might follow.

That process started in Germany (where more than a third of electricity still comes from coal) and caught on in fashionable UK circles. They did not make the same mistake in France where 70 per cent of electricity is generated from nuclear and over 20 per cent renewables. So they’re sitting as pretty as possible.

It is ironic that the main sanction at the West’s disposal is to cut off gas, which we have made ourselves stupidly dependent on in the first place. Let’s hope sanity prevails and there is no war in Ukraine. Either way, surely some lessons will be learned about the vulnerability of energy supply we have wished upon ourselves.

UK Ministers keep saying we are only three per cent dependent on Russian gas but this is a little misleading. First, we don’t have control over what arrives through interconnectors and will have less in future. Second, prices are determined globally so our consumers are no less affected than those in Germany, and much more than in France.

Which takes us to the question of domestic production. Opposition to developing the Cambo field was always irrational but now seems even more so. Just as in the earlier debate, the trick used by people who are against things is to suggest there is a virtuous alternative instantly to hand. Those who point out otherwise are shouted down as non-believers.

So just as the choice was never between nuclear and renewables for the supply of UK baseload, so it is not now between gas and renewables, convenient though that illusion might be. To a significant extent, the choice is between North Sea gas and imported gas, which is are much more difficult options for the virtuous to hide behind.

It was entirely predictable that when the Cambo bandwagon was passing, Nicola Sturgeon would clamber aboard. No tablets of stone have been handed down about whether this remains the Scottish Government’s position but I suspect public opinion – having caught onto the choice that actually exists – would be very much in favour of keeping the North Sea alive.

There are domestic reasons why this might once more appeal to Ms Sturgeon and it involves the dreaded word “pensions”. It is impossible to detach the question of whether a separate Scotland would be able to pay pensions and benefits at current levels from the politics of energy production and prices. But please don’t take my word for that.

The essential document in this respect is still the leaked 2013 briefing for colleagues written by John Swinney and never intended for public eyes. It warned clearly that the affordability of Scottish pensions and other benefits would depend on the “fluctuating” oil price. It was a sensation at the time since it blew a huge hole in the SNP’s economic claims.

They went on to square the circle in their White Paper by attaching a ludicrous figure to the “likely average” price of North Sea oil. Most Scots decided that they preferred pension security to fantasy economics and voted accordingly. It is not difficult to understand why the pensions issue continues to haunt the Nationalists and sent them off in search of an alternative wheeze.

If there is to be no new production in the North Sea, as is the wish of Ms Sturgeon, then “fluctuating” would not begin to hint at the hole left in Scottish public finances. Whether by clumsy inadvertence or some grand plan, they have now set out to pre-empt the pension difficulty by proclaiming that the rump of the UK, which we would just have walked out of, would pay it for us.

The derision with which this nonsense was greeted has sent them homewards to think again. Since there is not going to be a referendum any time soon, Ms Sturgeon has plenty time to catch the bandwagon on the way back, proclaim “Scotland’s Gas” and conjure up a marginally more credible pension plan.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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