The North Sea hydrocarbon reserves are among the most expensive and most technically difficult in the world. They are also short-medium life reserves compared with larger landmass oilfields.
Anticipating these disincentives, the incoming Labour governments of 1964-69 and 1974-79 with the state-owned BNOC and British Gas companies decided to make them more attractive for licenced operators by zero valuing to hydrocarbon assets thus avoiding the usual auction bidding process that would entail up-front purchase and risk acceptance by prospective extraction companies.
Then taxation rates on oil/gas extracted were relaxed to a very minimum as an incentive subsidy on future exploration and extraction activities. These arrangements- along with wholesale privatisation in 1980- meant that high profits were assured at low taxation rates and with the burden of risk and asset write-off being shouldered entirely by the taxpayer.
Also, these arrangements allowed for profligate extraction with value worthless assets being frittered away when the operational conditions got too difficult.
Unlike Norway– and many other oil and gas nation-states, no sovereign wealth fund was created on the back of oil/gas profit taxes- which in the case of Norway, has resulted in the biggest such fund for social welfare and public infrastructure in the world. So with Scottish territorial waters accounting for over 70% of UK oil and gas fields, little in the way- other than employment- of benefit has resulted/been accrued for the Scottish people.
Now Climate Change imperatives are bearing-down on all countries signed up to the IPOCC targets on carbon emissions targets- but yet ALL reliable sources producing estimates on oil (in particular) output and demand/consumption set targets well above limits required to bring about anything like a global temperature slow-down.
Also, the estimates for Scottish offshore- and fracked gas onshore- extraction fly clearly in the face of the Scottish government targets for a green neutral to zero-economy by 2030.
And also, also, it is clear that despite over 40 years of offshore hydrocarbon extraction- the living standards of the Scottish population- already low in comparison with much of the EU as well as many regions of the UK as a whole- have continued to fall and have continued downwards while the offshore company profits have continued upwards. Essentially we have had subsidies and tax breaks for the rich oil companies and merciless market rigour for the poorest consumers.
Global oil prices (to which gas is pegged) continue to be volatile- but with an OPEC cartel of some 20 countries which are hydrocarbon exporting economic mono-cultures- future price wars- like the one in 2014 which saw 75,000 job losses in the North Sea- make any future dependence on the industry both a climate change folly and an economically ruinous strategy.
Oil and gas over-production is already upon us and any future development- such as the West of Shetland fields- is both unsustainable AND a waste of opportunities to create a green and socially equitable political economy for Scotland.
Dr Brian Parkin, Senior research fellow (Energy Economics), Leeds University
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