HOWEVER YOU LOOK AT IT, the Scottish economy is currently a basket case. Our deficit, were we a separate economy, would be running at 9.5% of GDP, the worst anywhere in the EU, including Greece, and our current annual growth rate of 0.4% is under a fifth of the UK’s level of 2.1%.
Our oil and gas sector has lost 120,000 jobs in the last two years and exploration of new North Sea fields has dried up. The days of energy abundance, which have underpinned our economy for the last 40 years, have gone for ever.
All of this makes the attitude that our SNP Government is taking to developments at the Grangemouth refinery even more puzzling. Grangemouth is Scotland’s single largest manufacturing facility, responsible for an estimated 10,000 jobs.
In response to the declining North Sea sources of hydrocarbons, Grangemouth’s owners Ineos have invested a reported $1bn in a fleet of 8 ‘Dragon’ ships which form a virtual ‘pipeline’ to bring US gas to Grangemouth for processing into various chemicals and plastics, saving this vital processing plant from closure. But when the first of these ships arrived in September no Scottish Government minister was able to find the time to attend the ceremony. Grangemouth represents 1.2% of Scotland’s GDP – it’s pretty important.
One wonders why? After all, ministers have always seemed happy to get involved in various projects which save or create jobs; Alex Salmond made himself available to help Donald Trump with his Aberdeenshire golf course, and Nicola Sturgeon rushed to the aid of Prestwick Airport, which she then ‘bought for the nation’. But unlike Grangemouth, neither of these projects were remotely capable of ‘moving the dial’ on the Scottish economy.
Of course the real reason for the lack of Scottish Government’s involvement in Grangemouth is that they are avoiding the debate surrounding horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The use of fracking to retrieve gas from underground shale reserves is the source of the supplies now being brought by Ineos from the USA, and they also want fracking to be allowed here. The 300,000 or so American fracking wells are now pumping 4.2m barrels of oil a day, making the USA energy self-sufficient for the first time in decades. The US Chamber of Commerce estimates that hydraulic fracking has created 1.7m new jobs.
Here in Scotland, we have lots of shale. The world’s first oil industry was developed here in Scotland in the 19th century based on mining West Lothian’s shale reserves - it’s the reason that Grangemouth was built here in the first place. Allowing fracking in Scotland would create badly needed wealth and employment, but we continue to reject that option.
The technology of fracking has been thoroughly investigated in a report led by the Royal Academy of Engineering; the Scottish Government also commissioned an independent panel of scientific experts to consider the implications. Both concluded that the process was quite safe as long as properly regulated.
Experts, such as Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University complain that their evidence has been completely ignored and that the Scottish Government seems uninterested in facts.
Our Government is making no attempt to lead opinion on this subject, preferring to accept the uninformed case made by anti-fracking protesters.
But this is not a game, it’s reality. If we were to develop our own natural resources it could be the basis of a huge economic success story similar to that seen in the USA. It could transform our economic performance.
And we badly need that right now.