By Murdo Fraser, MSP
Earlier this year, and under the weight of thousands of job cuts in the UK’s oil and gas industry, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon remarked that campaigns for the divestment of pension funds and others from the oil and gas industry would indeed be “unhelpful” to Scotland’s economy.
Yet, merely months before, SNP MPs could be found in Westminster vehemently fighting for subsidies for renewable energies, calling for the end of fossil-fuel consumption in Scotland by the end of the decade. This hypocrisy is not only “unhelpful” in its own right, but it simply has no factual basis.
The reality of the situation is that, despite aggressive targets for renewable energy, 86 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. The infrastructure alone could not be approved and built in time for renewables to be our sole energy provider.
Natural gas in particular will be a key factor in driving down the UK’s carbon emissions, as it has in the United States, while supporting a pre-existing and necessary industry in engineering hubs such as Aberdeen or at the energy park in my Mid-Scotland and Fife constituency. By keeping that knowledge base at home, we can put our own people to work advancing new technologies and decommissioning old facilities in the North Sea over the next two decades, which could bring as much as £40 billion in business to the UK. Reducing emissions, creating jobs and maintaining essential talent are all achievable without shunning an entire industry.
The end user will benefit from a thoughtful energy transition too. Demonstrations by steelworkers in Brussels last month signal the challenge high energy prices present to energy-intensive industries. Any indication of undermining the fossil-fuel industry at this stage will only exacerbate an already difficult situation and force UK businesses to concede further competitive ground.
The fossil-fuel divestment movement is a culmination of the hypocrisy finding support in both Holyrood and Westminster. Campaigners have taken to local council meetings to demand that fossil-fuel stock be dropped by public pension funds at the same time that UK companies struggle to readjust to a low oil price. While research suggests that such boycotts do not affect the bottom lines of the companies targeted, there is also evidence to suggest that such investment strategies can jeopardise returns – the result of which will get us no closer to addressing the challenges presented by climate change.
In other words, activist campaigns such as divestment serve as nothing but a distraction from the real issues the UK faces. And yet by maintaining stock in fossil-fuel companies, individual shareholders can have a voice that would otherwise be lost by divesting. Instead, we’re dedicating column inches to hearing about fruitless sit-ins on university campuses, or Green Party MPs securing the support of other extreme politicians as if they were the majority. It is the definition of counterproductive.
Politicians, the media and the public should be quicker to expose what real connection such activists have to the communities they are attempting to influence. The US-based National Association of Scholars determined in 2015 that the global divestment movement is largely funded by well-known environmentalists like former US Vice President Al Gore, who has a net worth running into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Grassroots organisers are also coming from the upper echelons of a British educational establishment that is becoming increasingly biased. The Higher Education Institute has found that the proportion of college and university faculties that described themselves as “far left/liberal” has risen from around 40 per cent in 1989 to more than 60 per cent today. In contrast, less than half of the population even attend or have attended university, and instead rely on the jobs and affordable energy that so many fossil-fuel companies have come to provide.
To help those in fuel poverty, and those working in oil and gas, we must avoid counterproductive and activist-led campaigns, and instead support this crucial Scottish industry through these difficult times.
Murdo Fraser MSP is the Scottish Conservative shadow spokesman for finance, enterprise, energy and tourism and convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s economy, energy and tourism committee.