Blog: Election energy ‘debate’ is out of this world

Photograph of Carraig Gheal windfarm

The election ‘debate’ over energy feels like it’s being beamed here from another planet. In this alternate reality there are vast reserves of unlicensed oil and gas awaiting a leader brave enough to tap into this unproblematic wealth. 

Carbon capture and storage is a sure thing, and, on this other world, nuclear power plants are quick, clean, safe and cheap to build. Most wonderful of all, these alien politicians and commentators enjoy a nice healthy, stable climate and environment.

Unfortunately none of that applies to Scotland, to the UK, or to Earth. 

On our planet, North Sea oil and gas output peaked in 1999, and has declined since. According to the UK Energy Research Centre, ‘the bulk of the remaining fossil fuel resource is already licensed’, with 51 new licences awarded since 2022. This all makes the election argument over new licences more akin to two bald folk fighting over a comb.

Even if we weren’t concerned about climate change, pretending oil and gas can be a major part of this country’s long term future is a disservice to all those who work in it. 

In parallel, the real renewables sector faces the opposite problem: thousands of new vacancies, and many more on the way, and an industry urgently seeking people with the skills, experience or qualifications to fill them. Every subsidy and penny spent desperately trying to shore up the fossil fuel industry – could be helping people into work in a sector that we need now, and for the long term. 

As Vicky Allan’s investigation in last week’s Sunday Herald shows, renewable energy companies and clean energy services and supply chains are expanding, and job sites are buzzing.

We’re told there must be a “just transition”. It remains a worthy aim but must not mean that the transition be as slow as possible. In these circumstances, it should be quicker.

The new developments at NIGG and Ardersier neatly illustrate a significant industrial supply chain shift. Huge growth in green jobs is on the table – in construction, in financial services, in welding, in green steel, in green hydrogen, heat pumps, insulation installers, pumped hydro engineers, technology manufacturing, scaffolders, designers, ecologists, project managers, civil and electrical engineers, to name just some. 

It is understandable that trade unions lobby hard for smaller numbers of existing jobs, even when many more jobs could be unlocked via an accelerated transition. But they are trying to pump air into a burst balloon, and risk leaving workers high and dry – the opposite of what their members need or want. That seems somewhat short of ‘just’.

These stalling tactics not only mean we miss out on new jobs: they do not even save money. In 2022 Oxford University published a study which found that, “compared to continuing with a fossil fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition is likely to result in trillions of net savings, even without accounting for climate damages or climate policy co-benefits.”

Instead we are offered a policy doom loop: the economy is kept dependent on fossil fuels, which then supposedly requires more extraction of oil and gas. We are then told that new licences will supply domestic demand, and of course, that carbon capture will save the day. 

However, despite the UK being a net oil importer, 81% of North Sea oil is exported. Last ditch efforts to drill for more may benefit shareholders, but do nothing for household bills, with the main driver of price spikes being the global fossil fuel market.

Effort that could be going on a successful more rapid transition is instead being wasted on pipe-dreams. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis notes that “carbon capture and storage is an expensive and unproven technology that distracts from global decarbonisation efforts while allowing the oil and gas industry to conduct business as usual.” It essentially rebrands a well-kent oil industry practice called enhanced oil recovery – pumping gas (in this case carbon dioxide) into oil and gas fields to extract more fossil fuel. 

The US Congress obtained messages between lobbyists and their corporate clients, where a Shell executive warned colleagues “to be careful to not talk about [carbon capture] as prolonging the life of oil, gas or fossil fuels writ large”, and BP admitted privately that it aims to “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond”.

Even on industry projections, carbon capture could only deliver about 2.4% of the world’s carbon emissions reductions by 2030, according to the IPCC. But that is a fantasy too, given that no carbon capture project has ever reached its target for sequestering CO2. 

It is possible to power transport, homes and businesses and run energy networks using a wide range of genuinely clean technologies that already exist, including pumped storage hydro, grid-scale batteries, smart local energy systems and demand management, energy efficiency measures, green hydrogen, wind, solar, hydro, heat pumps, wave and tidal, EVs and the rest.

Oil and gas licenses, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear too – these are expensive and dangerous distractions, delaying the real action needed.

The climate crisis is very real and more urgency matters. Parts of the world are quickly becoming hostile places to live, with heatwaves recently killing hundreds of pilgrims at Hajj and extreme unprecedented climate events becoming all too common. Severe heat stress currently affects 68 million people globally, this is set to increase 15-fold in a 2 degree warming scenario.

The climate impacts on ecosystems and human food chains are intensifying and being felt worldwide. But however much change is baked in already, it can always be better or worse, depending on how quickly we get off fossil fuels. As the courts have just told UK Ministers: they aren’t doing enough

It’s time to live in the real world, not a fossil-fuelled fantasy.