Nicola Sturgeon faces a backlash from voters and the SNP over her opposition to any new North Sea fields, the party’s former head of communications has warned, amid fears it would lead to thousands of job losses and “more imported oil for decades”.
Fergus Mutch hit out at Ms Sturgeon’s change of stance this week, sarcastically asking whether the Scottish Government had managed to create “100,000 new green jobs and magically phase out domestic demand for oil and gas”.
Mr Mutch, who also stood for the party in Aberdeenshire West in May’s Holyrood election, warned that without this, stopping the controversial Cambo field “gets us unemployment” and more imported oil.
He said there were “plenty of people” in the SNP across Scotland, including those in elected positions, who had “serious reservations about going too hard and too fast”.
The former chief spin doctor also warned Ms Sturgeon her drastic change of policy could lead to “difficulty for the SNP at the polls” and it had “serious risks attached to it”.
For weeks, the First Minister has urged Boris Johnson to review the drilling licence for the Cambo field, off the coast of Shetland, while repeatedly refusing to state whether she personally opposed the development.
But she dramatically came off the fence on Tuesday, telling MSPs she did not think that Cambo “should get the green light” and that the development “couldn’t and shouldn’t pass any rigorous climate assessment”.
In an extraordinary development, which tore up the SNP’s decades-long economic argument for independence, the First Minister went even further by stating: “I don’t think we can go and continue to give the go-ahead to new oil fields.”
But trade body Oil and Gas UK warned that stopping domestic production would merely increase reliance on imports from countries such as Russia and Qatar, which would cost more and have a far greater carbon footprint.
Drilling at Cambo could start next year and continue for 25 years. Siccar Point Energy, the firm behind the development, says it could create more than 1,000 jobs directly and more in the supply chain.
Significant risk to change of policy
An exploration licence was granted for the field in 2001 and the UK’s Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) is now considering whether to give its approval.
Mr Mutch, who was the SNP’s head of communications and research between Oct 2015 and February last year, told ITV Border’s Representing Border programme that Ms Sturgeon’s new-found opposition was “disappointing”.
He said: “I don’t think it makes a lot of sense and it’s also at odds with what the First Minister was saying just last week at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow.”
Mr Mutch said Ms Sturgeon had previously said the two caveats for Scotland moving to net zero were protecting 100,000 jobs in the energy sector and ensuring that the country did not become more reliant on imports.
But he said her intervention this week “puts both of those things at significant risk”, before warning: “There’s plenty of people in the membership and elected positions within the SNP in the North East and Scotland-wide who will have serious reservations about going too hard and too fast.
“They answer ultimately to their constituents, the people who elected them, and when constituents are worried about their future, worried about their livelihoods then certainly they will be asking questions of their elected representatives.”
Thousands of oil jobs could be lost
He said most people working in the North Sea industry realise climate change represents a “present danger to the planet” but he argued the number of new renewables jobs needs to keep pace with the decline in oil jobs.
“Unless they are expanded at scale sooner rather than later then we are going to see job losses,” he concluded.
Liam Kerr, the Scottish Tories’ shadow net zero and energy secretary, said: “It’s clear to everyone that Nicola Sturgeon has betrayed communities in the North East, when one of the SNP’s trusted advisors and parliamentary candidates comes out and publicly attacks her stance on Cambo. “
Jonathan Roger, chief executive of Siccar Point Energy, said: “The UK’s production is in a huge decline. Without new fields we will import even more during the transition to new energy sources, which would have a greater carbon footprint.
“Saying no to new UK oil and gas, while other neighbouring countries such as Norway continue to develop new fields, denies workers who keep our lights on and businesses the chance of a fair transition.”