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Cloudbursting or, why Cambo should not go ahead


During the week, I noticed another rash of pro-independence supporters worrying that by cheering Shell announcing they would not be continuing their support for the development of the Cambo oil field, we may be undermining the case for independence. “Will no-one think of the jobs?” or words to that effect.

It also felt as though the issue of Cambo has been caught up in the War of the Pronouns or whatever we’re now calling the stooshie that is the 21st Century equivalent of Bruce versus Comyn that seems to be playing out across Scotland’s pro-independence (that is, actually Scottish) political parties.

To be clear: ISP backs the position laid out by Common Weal, that of those oil-industry workers surveyed, 86% were found to have skills transferrable to the renewable sector. Those workers should be helped to re-train and not at their own expense either: whether as an independent nation or as a colony of the Greater Tory Reich, Scotland needs skilled workers.

What is also not in doubt is that oil and gas are about more than just the stuff we put in our cars. You don’t have to live downwind of Mossmorran, and like many in the community around you, have developed Adult-Onset Asthma despite previous high-levels of personal physical fitness, to appreciate the nuanced argument that ethylene plants are a necessary part of a modern economy (though if SEPA Directors could be drawn from folk who weren’t part of the oil lobby, that would be a much better fit for our national health).

Oil is used in everything from medicines to soaps, and medical-grade plastics to fertilisers. It’s used in the fabrication – oh, the irony – of wind and sea turbines. It’s used to transport goods globally and it’s used in the surfacing of our roads on which our electric bus fleets will one day run from our cities to our most remote Highland communities – yes, really, there’s a White Paper somewhere which promises just that.

What is needed is a sensible re-appraisal of the asset we’re already exploiting and where it’s being taken to and that means confronting the Big Red Dragon in every European Parliament because more than 40% of North Sea reserves are ‘owned’ by Chinese companies. Bizarrely, we’re currently exporting more than 84% of oil and gas that’s coming out of the North Sea, which must be particularly frustrating to communities in Scotland’s North-East who have been without power for two weekends now.

All of Scotland’s consumers are paying over the top for household power and I have to disagree with Kate Forbes: Scots are not paying three times as much for electricity supplied to their homes if producers in our country are having to pay more than £7 per kWh to onboard that power to The National Grid while producers in England’s south-east are being paid 45p per kWh. That difference is surely impacting what we pay beyond the difference we see on our household bills, as it’s bound to inhibit the (faster) roll-out of even more renewable infrastructure and as a consequence, will also be impacting our ability to move staff from the oil- and gas-industry to where they want to be in Scotland’s new energy future.

Be in no doubt, there are many sectors of our lives which will necessitate the continued extraction of oil for some years to come but our debate rarely focuses with laser acuity on what we do with the oil, particularly Scotland’s oil – and it is our oil, not London or Beijing’s.

By some estimates, existing exploited fields contain more than 200 years of oil for all our non-automotive needs, provided we were in a position to make the switch to electric vehicles now – but that requires a government that is led by honest public debate and not by corporate lobbyists.

We can debate numbers, figures, statistics all day long but what we can’t deny is the hard science. The problem is we’re still – even after COP26 – aware of even a fraction of the issues thrown up by scientific study of our climate and ecology, perhaps because our governments don’t want us to panic or perhaps because, if we’re being generous, news editors couldn’t find the time to slot a feature into the evening news schedules.

So, here’s the bit where I ask if you’re sitting comfortably. I’m going to give you the sort of nightmares that will have screaming next time you look at your kids.

Are you sitting comfortably?

There is at Harvard University, a dramatically under-reported study by the Anderson Research Group (and latterly, NASA). Basic physics tells us that with increasing climate temperatures, we should see an increase in cloud cover and therefore, a drop in temperature as we see less of the sun. This did not appear to be happening in the US Midwest, so the team took some old U2 bombers and retrofitted them with an array of sensors to better understand what is happening in the high-altitude, especially in those weeks when North America is at its warmest.

What they found is that water vapour has a peculiar effect on the regeneration of ozone which is created when lightning blasts the gaseous molecules in the stratosphere. Water vapour appears to act as an insulating sponge, cloaking itself around the particles it needs in the chemical reaction to create ozone from an ordinary oxygen molecule. When temperatures in the lower stratosphere increase by 1%, the presence of water vapour increases by up to 7%. What this means is that water vapour is actually having a greater effect on climate warming than carbon dioxide (though carbon dioxide and methane emission are actually what is creating more water vapour).

Once humidity increases to 14% or thereabouts, the ability of lightning to create more ozone simply stops. In other words, at a global temperature increase of just 2°C, our planet’s ability to reflect the most harmful radiation in our solar system comes to an end and with it the debate about how expensive it is to stop emitting carbon dioxide as all life is cosmically fried from the Earth.

Tambourine-bashing hippies weren’t kidding when they said COP26 had to deliver hard reductions in the extraction of oil and gas by 2030 and I’d bet most of them haven’t even heard of Anderson Research Group’s work with NASA. Yet.

All through COP26, we heard that the climate – that is, the stratospheric temperature not the weird snowfall we had last week – had warmed the planet by 0.7°C at a minimum. Exact estimates are difficult because countries such as Russia, Australia and India keep dressing their figures or more simply not taking the measurements that everyone else is attempting but what we can see already is that the rate of ozone repair in the Arctic and Antarctic has slowed in recent years since the global ban on CFCs.

The minimum that is being asked of all oil-rich countries is that they cease to develop new fields while we search for solutions to a threat not so much to our planet but to our species. Cambo isn’t going anywhere. We know where it is and what it contains and if in the decades to come, humanity collectively manages to avoid temperature increases of 2°C, we can with our SPF500 cream think about developing fields to furbish those sectors with the oil they need for the manufacture but definitely not for burning.

With no small amount of drama, it’s worth asking what is the economic contribution to be made from oil industry jobs in Scotland, if we’re on a planet where you can’t walk above ground?

Any political timescale for reducing emissions which mentions dates as far in the future as 2050 (Europe), 2060 (US and India) or even 2070 (China), are a lie built on the public not being aware of all the science that is out there. Do yourself a favour and next time you hear someone on the news talking about Net Zero emissions, ask them about water vapour and ozone.

We might not agree on who should be leading Scotland to independence but as self-interested living creatures who need breathable air, crops that can feed us and a sky that doesn’t fry us when we emerge from our bunkers, we can surely agree that the idiots who bet large on what are now proving to be orphan investments deserve to lose their shirts for their craven selfishness.

We are also long past the time when many pro-independence supporters have made themselves familiar with the work of Kate Raworth and others, so that we can begin serious and informed discussion about how Scotland has the capability of capitalising on her Renewable Super-powers, becoming an economic powerhouse – literally – that is the envy of Europe, if not the world.

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