England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Scotland: Energy companies get ‘green’ light to step up climate devastation

By Paul Moorhouse, Socialist Alternative Scotland

At the end of July, the UK Government announced ‘hundreds of new oil and gas licences’ in the North Sea. This marks a further retreat from any pretence that British capitalism can, or wants to, achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 – itself a totally inadequate target in the face of the mounting catastrophe of global warming.

Bonanza of corporate profits

Most licences will be in Scottish waters. The Scottish National Party (SNP)’s devolved administration criticised (but did nothing concrete to prevent) previous moves by Westminster Tories to expand drilling, for instance in the Cambo field North West of Shetland. On this occasion however, barely a squeak of opposition came from Holyrood, when Rishi Sunak flew into Aberdeen by private jet for a press conference. Instead, First Minister Humza Yousaf, welcomed Sunak’s simultaneous announcement that the Aberdeen based Acorn ‘carbon capture, and storage’ (CCS) project could bid for an unspecified share of the £20 billion of UK funding.

Even if any of this money makes its way to Scotland, it represents a ‘drop in the ocean’ of increased oil and gas production. Indeed, research by Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre shows that CCS schemes serve to increase carbon fuel extraction: 81% of carbon captured to date has been used to extract more oil.

So this ‘green investment’ actually represents a state subsidy for the environmentally destructive core business of Shell UK, 30% owners of Acorn. Shell and, the UK’s other carbon giant, BP made over £92 billion in profits in 2022 as they cashed in on the cost of living crisis and the disruption of the energy market in the wake of the Ukraine war. Sunak made it clear that his expansion of drilling is essential to the NATO war effort, declaring that: ‘Putin has weaponised energy – disrupting supply and stalling growth. It’s vital that we bolster our energy security.’

Workers and rural communities bear brunt of energy crisis

Sunak’s imperialist ‘counter-weaponisation’ goes hand in hand with intensifying class war at home: record profits for the privatised energy suppliers alongside escalating fuel costs. This massive theft of wealth from working people by capitalist monopolies reflects the distorted priorities and anarchy of capitalism, driving growing fuel-poverty in Scotland.

Workers in Scotland already paid the highest average UK energy bills in 2021, before the leap in prices: £1,651 per year, compared to £1,554 in England and £1,525 in Wales. But there is no rational reason for this. 96% of the electricity Scotland (a net-exporter) generates comes from renewable energy sources, which are far cheaper than fossil fuels. This inequality reflects the inherent centralising tendencies of the ‘combined and uneven’ development of the capitalist economy. The drive for profits in metropolitan centres impoverishes ‘peripheral’ communities.

A pattern even stronger within Scotland: before the cost of living crisis, one in four households were in fuel poverty (spending more than 10% of their income on energy). It is now over one in three. However, in the more remote Highlands and Islands, fuel poverty was already endemic when the Scottish House Condition Survey was conducted in 2017-19: 57% in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, 47% in Highland and 46% in Argyll and Bute, the very areas producing much of Scotland’s electricity and gas!

Highland communities also face environmental destruction from Scottish and Southern Electricity (SSE)’s plans to build a 100 mile power line from Spittal on the Caithness coast to reach English markets. Using 50-70m high pylons which would dwarf the Statue of Liberty, its impact on the landscape and natural environment would be devastating. SSE rejected alternative off-shore routes. Strathpepper and Contin Better Cable Route Campaign argue that, with profits topping £2.1 billion in 2022: ‘this is a company with deep pockets, in an industry awash with cash.’ SSE claim alternatives ‘are too expensive.’ Yet these proposed grid upgrades already include subsea connections from Scotland to England. Why not route it all offshore? That’s where most of the wind power will be generated after all.

Scottish government facilitates corporate plunder

Power companies’ profits are also boosted by the knockdown price of Scottish Government licences for off-shore wind power generation. The latest, ‘ScotWind’, licences cover 8,000 square kilometres with around 28 gigawatts of energy capacity (equalling total current UK wind generation). ScotWind licences earned £755 million. Had they raised the same amount per megawatt as recent auctions in California, this should have been about £3.5bn. If they had raised as much as the New York bed auction, this would have been around £16.5bn. The bulk of the licences went to companies knee-deep in the carbon fuel industry: Shell and BP own 20% of ScotWind. On-shore wind-generation is equally lucrative for Scotland’s big landowners. Over a decade ago, the Duke of Roxburghe alone netted around £1.5 million a year from 48 turbines.

The SNP administration does nothing because, accepting the warped logic of capitalism, it cannot challenge big business’s destructive agenda. Indeed, Holyrood ministers increasingly play the role of ‘junior partners’ to the Westminster Tories, cementing the grip of Shell, BP and other monopolies on Scotland’s natural wealth and workers’ lives, not just through ScotWind and Acorn, but also by the establishment of two ‘Green Freeports’ – 45km diameter zones on the Forth and Cromarty Firths where energy businesses can be exempt not just from customs duties, but swathes of labour, safety and environmental regulations; a robber-barons’ charter.

A socialist alternative to avert climate catastrophe

Far from weaker regulation of these parasites, we need genuine public ownership and democratic control of all energy. SNP conference twice voted to establish a Scottish publicly owned energy company but ministers claim that they lack powers to implement even this minimal measure, despite the fact that the Welsh Government, with fewer powers, has done so!

A socialist government at Holyrood would go far further and nationalise the energy production and supply industries, as well as the land, necessary to democratically plan a just transition to green energy and save the planet. Of course, this would meet the bitter resistance of the British ruling class and its global counterparts. The only viable response would be the deepening and extension of a revolutionary movement of workers and young people in England, Wales, Ireland – and indeed internationally that consciously fights for a socialist alternative to climate catastrophe.


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