Scotland’s oil the bigger picture

In the autumn of 1999 I gatecrashed a presentation by a newly hired Department of Trade And Industry recruit. I was working at the Department of Environment at the time so it was more of a sneaking under the rope than breaking through the door type of gate crashing. But, nevertheless, I was in the DTI offices on Victoria Street, without an invite but with bated breath to hear a presentation. A presentation about North Sea oil.

My desire to nip away from the office to hear a closed door presentation on some fossil fuel wasn’t my normal form however the DTI recruit was a close friend from University who was now proudly and authoritatively presenting to a room full of senior civil servants. And this I had to see!

Every young graduate has these moments when they see for the first time their drinking partner, flat mate, football colleague, magically, almost suddenly enter normal life and become a professional. It’s a sobering prism to look through for all young graduates.

For the bespectacled, pin stripped civil servants their questioning and worrying gaze was focussed on my friend’s wild claims that the price of a barrel of crude oil would, in the near future, rise above $25. “Poppycock” someone probably said. Despite the content being clearly derided the presentation was politely applauded by the pinstripes and all too vigorously by the supportive gatecrashing mate.

How things have changed. In April 2011 the average price of oil reached $102 a barrel and that DTI recruit is now a senior civil servant; pinstriped and bespectacled.

Placing our oil in context

With the temporary fall in oil prices to below $60 a barrel the media is reporting that the oil industry is in crisis. There are of course serious concerns for companies, regions, employees, and the UK exchequer (because remember all the revenue from Scottish oil ends up in London). However to focus only on this short term reduction is to miss the much bigger picture. The much bigger picture is something that the mainstream media all too often forgets especially when it relates to corporate subsidies. 

We need to take a measured response to the “crisis” for the UK oil industry and not support the calls from corporations, government and trade unions (which is exceptionally peculiar), to cut taxes for this mature and untimely harmful industry. To call it a crisis and to focus on oil company subsidies as the answer is to ignore three exceptionally important pieces of background: the so called wider picture.

1. Where has all the money gone?

The billions of pounds which poured, slopped and dripped into company accounts and the Treasury coffers were a total boon, unknown and unplanned before the mid 1970s.

According to the ONS, since 1980 £177 billion has been sucked from the coast around the Scottish mainland and its Isles into the UK Treasury. You can guess at a higher figure earned by Oil Companies in the same period. So, let’s say £500 billion in thirty years or so. The Oil Industry and the UK Exchequer has seen a quite unimaginable boom in the profits from oil in the North Sea and from that they should have built a lot of cash reserves!

The job of any enterprise and for any government is to plan properly. The good times will come but surer than that so will the bad. Therefore the job of any organisation in the private sector or in the public sector is to be prepared. This is especially so when dealing with a product where the price can fluctuate drastically.

Before we continue to demand subsidies for oil companies we should be asking:

– what exactly have they been doing during the peak years to support a not unexpected downturn?

We should be asking our politicians:

– is our duty to start to subsidise companies in the lean years?

– is this the free market which they speak of?

We should be asking these questions before reducing their level of tax. However we are already too late as this years autumn statement chopped 2p off the level of tax oil companies have to pay. Again, let’s put this into context: this moves £470m over the next parliament from me and you to oil companies. This is on top of their current subsidy, which The UK Environmental Audit Committee claims is £12 billion a year from the UK Government: a massive corporate subsidy to an industry that has earned hundreds of billions exploiting our natural resources in the past few decades.

So typically with any bump in the road our government’s first response is to subsidise international corporations rather than to demand that they manage their affairs properly.

Oh, only to be Norwegian! Their Oil Fund has grown to a massive $850 billion. Currently this money is sitting, growing in a fund and not being used to pay for anything. However it is inconceivable that the fund would not be used to plug a hole in Norway’s finances should a drop in oil revenues continue and start to drastically affect the population. What has the UK Government done with our money? Where is the long term planning? Where is the buffer? Where is the investment from this boon?

These are the questions we should be asking not how much more subsidy do billion dollar profit companies require?

Both private businesses and the UK Government have failed to property and prudentially manage the money from our seas. I for one do not want to prop up an industry that has managed its finances so badly. No more tax cuts. They incentivise only one thing: more state sponsored miss management of our resources.

2. The oil industry is not a structurally sound industry

“Scotland and the Carbon Bubble” a report by Scottish Environmental LINK was launched in December and focuses on the preparedness of sectors of the economy, government and society should the Carbon Bubble burst. The Carbon Bubble is the reality that no more than 1/3rd of known fossil fuel reserves can be burned before we face a climate catastrophe.

There is a strong possibility that not all of the fossil fuels that the UK has access to will be burned. These ‘stranded assists’ will be left in the ground and oil companies and countries who will be expecting to earn from them will never see them realised. The financial impact of this reality for employees, regions, companies, pension funds and countries would simply dwarf this current “crisis”: picture that as big as the North Sea and this one no more than a puddle.

Scotland is of course especially susceptible to the financial impact of a carbon bubble. Our reliance on oil as an important industry is similar to our love affair with financial services. We must take this opportunity to properly diversify from fossil fuels. We have to learn the lessons from the financial crash that we can not rely on the speculative nature of certain industries to underpin our future.

3. The oil industry is not an environmentally sound industry

It was announced this month that renewables had for the first time become Scotland’s largest source of power demonstrating that our need for fossil fuels is reducing. We now have viable, secure and powerful alternatives to fossil fuels. We now have alternative clean industries for our jobs, pensions funds, regions, companies and our country.

The context of the environmental impact of more drilling, more exploration, more production and more consumption of oil scarcely receives a mention in any coverage of the oil industry. The social costs of the industry are made invisible by the main stream media. And that not only blinds the general population but it also dazes politicians.

Within the forty or so pages of the LINK Carbon Bubble Report one paragraph stood out. It was the response from the “Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee” of the Scottish Parliament. Their spokesman said that the committee was not aware of the concept of the Carbon Bubble and they did not know if it presented a risk to Scotland. No matter what you think of the likelihood of a bubble, does that sound like a country in which the full facts and opinions are openly discussed?

Before we look forward lets head back to 1998 and picture the disbelief and pleasure at the rise and rise of oil prices on the faces of those DTI officials. Imagine the glee as the revenues for the UK Treasury from North Sea oil rose and rose breaking the £100billion barrier during the Blair Government. Mirrored of course by a bigger rise in profits for oil companies.

Those billions of pounds poured, slopped and dripped into company accounts and the treasury. The dirty money swelled the coffers as a dirty and structurally unsound industry spent instead of saved.

That is the UK’s past but continuing on this path does not need to the Scotland’s future.

Political dissent Barcelona style

Political dissent lessons from the streets of Barcelona

We’ve all seen and heard the recent discussions around what “being British” means. These debates tend to take place to frame the idea that immigration is threatening these values. I’ve personally never found it easy to define Britishness probably because I don’t consider myself British. However there is a belief that various traits, traditions, beliefs and actions in a community of size can translate into a rough idea of that communities “values”. Say hello to the stereotype.

So by British I mean the often heard phrase of “mustn’t grumble.” Add to that our dislike of a strike or striking and our avoidance of a revolution and we have cultural evidence of this tendency to accept what’s given to us.

We may at times get a bit miffed. We may complain. We may write an angry letter or two and we may even join a demo. But these are the exceptional circumstances rather than the rules. Well, in Spain, and in Catalunya in particular it is quite the opposite. How can I put it? They tend to get well……..a little bit hotter under the collar.

So here’s my guide to political activism from the streets and kitchens of Barcelona and beyond.

1. Play the numbers game

While in Barcelona I witnessed street action against the proposed closing of a local nursery with twenty or so mums and dads marching under one banner. At the other extreme we had a million plus people linking arms across Catalunya. It’s in the blood to take your grievances to the street. And once on the street and with numbers this starts to be noticed as I discussed in a previous post.

Amassing numbers on the street is something for us Scots to consider as we seek to keep the momentum going post referendum. Numbers on the streets – once they reach a tipping point – lead to column inches and minutes on the mainstream TV news. We must start to embrace the street in a way that the Spanish have been doing for generations.

2. Burn bins not books

It was very interesting to see the reaction to the decision of three SNP councillors to set alight a copy of the Smith Commission (be warned this link is to the BBC – it’s included because it is a typical story that the BBC runs about the Smith Commission).

Scottish Labour’s interim leader, Anas Sarwar, said: “This is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour from three SNP councillors.” This is of course expected from a Labour man. However I was very surprised to see that the SNP suspended the councillors. What a shame. They just burned a document they didn’t agree with. In Barcelona when you are pissed off you burn a bin.

Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle
Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle

This escalation of the use of matches is pretty standard for any street bound demonstration in the Catalan capital. Now I’d have a problem with councillors doing this but seeing a bound document going up in flames in a nice controlled environment; not so much.

As we move towards a more enlivened and more motivated political environment we can’t all start to shift uncomfortably in our seats when someone burns a hastily put together westminster leaning report. Major political change is made when things happen. And let’s not shy away from making a strong political statement: let’s not be scared or sanctioned when we fan the flames.

3. Be bold and break the law

Sánchez Gordillo the elected Major of the small town of Marinaleda led raids on local supermarkets during the height of the recession in Andalusia “They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves.” This is taken from a fantastic book “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox which I would thoroughly recommend (buying the book not raiding Tesco)

And check out Enric Duran an infamous young Catalan (he simply had to be Catalan!) who “borrowed” €492,000 from thirty-nine different financial institutions. He had no intention of ever paying any of it back. Instead he distributed it among a variety of different co-operatives and revolutionary projects. Now this is activism. And my hat is tipped!

4. An attack on culture is still an attack

One of the biggest protests that took place while I was in Barcelona was against the closing of a previously disused building called “Can Vias.” Social Activists had turned the building into a hub for social and cultural activity. Until the price of land bounced back of course. The Can Vias link from the blog “It’s a Funny Old World” gives some insight into the universal problem of police brutality as an interesting aside.

For over four centuries Catalunya has viewed an attack on its culture as an attack on the region and on Catalans themselves. Many of their political demonstrations are to save cultural resources. It’s not all about money, poverty, corruption or police brutality; the defence of Cultural Catalunya has equal weight. I wonder if in Scotland we place our culture in such high regard?

Here’s pictures of a packed square and a plaque from outside my first flat in Barcelona. Every year a few score of Catalans would sing, dance the Sardana and place some flowers to mark the commitment to heroes of the Catalan cultural resistance who during the 1800s continued to dance the Sardana despite bans from Madrid.

Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes
Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes

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5. Protest with everything including the kitchen sink

On the Monday before the Catalan referendum a cacophony from outside our window spurred me to jump onto Twitter. I’ve just realised that the natural reaction should have been to just look out the window to find out what was going on, but there you go, that’s the world we live in. Pots and pans were the weapon of choice as thousands of Catalans protested about the Spanish government action in declaring the vote illegal. And what a racket. That continued on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The beauty of this is in its simplicity. It’s easy. And once you’ve taken this little step to activism you could get on a role. It can be done from your home (and owing to the proximity of said pots and pans) this actually helps. And it can be LOUD.

I would love for everyone in Scotland to pick up a pot and with a ladle (my weapon of choice that week in Barcelona) give it a good malky in protest against the increase in Westminster led austerity. Every night for a week, everyone could be active. Every household-  even those ones that Tory Peers think “can’t cook”! – can open their windows and can demonstrate to everyone in their neighbourhood and beyond that sometimes what the establishment thinks is enough is actually not enough.

Stories from Barcelona tell me that political statements don’t need to be about burning, stealing or redistributing anything. It’s just about making a noise and being seen.

Scotland make some noise. And fan the flames.

No State or 51st State – Catalunya or UK?

It was with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases that my girlfriend and I left Barcelona at the end of November.  Almost all of our possessions had been picked up weeks before but with the sheer amount of Jamón, Padrons and Manchego we were carrying the seams of our bags were straining.

Hasta luego Barcelona. In the last week we said our goodbyes to the things we will miss the most. To the beach calmly emptying the final tourists during the dying days of autumn. To strong coffee in small cups. To Tapas. To Vermut. To the sound of agreement being echoed again, and again, and again as Catalan Gentleman nod and say “vale, vale, vale, vale, vale, vale” almost endlessly. Barcelona is a wonderful city full or wonderful people.

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Moving back to Northern Britain – the 51st State

We returned to Edinburgh a day after that recent US import Black Friday. Celebrating with a consumerist splurge the end of a celebration (Thanks Giving) that you don’t actually celebrate has to be one of the strangest diseases that the UK has caught in a while. America has been sneezing at this time of year since the 1960s but only now, powered by the internet and our avariciousness, have we contracted the bug. To witness it – thankfully just on TV – was ghastly. Here’s Buzzfeed’s summary.

We spent “Black Friday” (actually is was just a bit grey) in Barcelona walking round the local market. This is what Black Friday meant to us and it would seem hundreds of others who did their shopping that day.

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Black Friday Catalunya

Every year in the lead up to Christmas food collections spring up next to every single type of food shop. Market stalls, smaller independent stores and the larger super markets all get involved. Large boxes on creates are placed next to or inside stores and quickly fill with beans, pasta, rice, UHT, biscuits and tins of seafood. We decided to donate a few bags of food; pondering over the best items as we weighed up longevity with variety.

During the 20mins or so of our deliberations I’d say that 90% of shoppers donated at least one item. But that’s no surprise as I’ve come to learn the Catalans are a very socially engaged and spirited lot. This food collection tradition is much older than the Black Friday Sales.

So you can imagine what it felt like to return to the UK and witness how Black Friday had been spent here. “The American state across the pond” is a soubriquet that I simply detest to see my country – Scotland – living up to. One of my great hopes for an independent Scotland is that we would cast off two sets of cultural shackles as we split from Westminster’s cultural direction and the UK’s desire to live the life of Americans. No thanks man! Is what I say.

One of the glories of Catalunya and of Barcelona is that the region has this heart shaped by local communities and a local agenda that pumps with pride. It starts in the family, through the barrios, cities and finally at the borders of the region. It may not be a “State” but at least it is not the 51st State.