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JIM CRUMLEY: Cambo oilfield approval would be a fatal mistake for the planet

Climate activists make their feelings on Cambo known during the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Climate activists make their feelings on Cambo known during the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

A quirky coincidence turned my head. I had been reading Saturday’s Courier report of Sir Ian Wood’s intervention in the Cambo oil and gas field controversy.

Right next to it was the Scottish Greens’ Patrick Harvie, pointing out that only the right wing of Scottish politics now supports the project.

It will surprise no-one who has even the most fleeting familiarity with this column that I agreed with Mr Harvie and that I thought Sir Ian Wood was talking rot.

But the coincidence lay elsewhere.

My interest in Cambo stems not from politics or the energy industry but rather (as befits a nature writer) from a preoccupation with the wellbeing of the planet.

The particular nature book that I am writing had urged my researches deep into the pages of one of the great works of nature writing – Arctic Dreams by the American Barry Lopez.

On Friday evening I had lingered over the kind of passage that endears me to Lopez’s work, quiet, considered and thoughtful.

But then a few hours later I would reappraise them when I read Sir Ian Wood’s words.

“The skills, experience and infrastructure of a world-class oil and gas industry will play a crucial role in accelerating energy transition and meeting net zero,” said Sir Ian.

“We must support the industry in meeting this ambition, and it is essential the Scottish and UK governments do too.”

Continuing with Cambo would be a fatal error

My response to the sentiment was “No, it isn’t”.

For the next 25 years if the world-class oil and gas industry gets its way, Cambo will fan the flames of world-class devastation that the industry has wrought on a beleaguered planet for decades now.

It was at that moment the coincidence kicked in.

Barry Lopez had written about a winter night on the sea ice north of Melville Island in the high Arctic, accompanying a drilling crew.

He saw a seal surface in a “moon pool”, open water directly under a drilling platform that lets the drill string pass through the ice.

The seal’s sudden appearance astounded him. As did the fact that it then considered him with “frank curiosity” for several minutes.

Then he wrote this (and you should know at this point that his book was published 35 years ago): “To contemplate what people are doing out here and ignore the universe of the seal, to consider human quest and plight and not know the land, I thought, to not listen to it, seemed fatal.

Harbour seals resting on melting glaciers.

“Not perhaps for tomorrow, or next year,” he continued.

“But fatal if you looked down the long road of our determined evolution and wondered at the considerations that got us this far…”

Public understand that oil and gas projects must stop

That word “fatal” is the one that chills.

These last 35 years have seen sea ice and glaciers disappear, sea levels rise to a level that threatens every low-lying shore in the world, pollution that torments all pelagic life from great whales to sand eels and microscopic krill.

There was another quote at the end of the story on Saturday, from Tessa Khan, director of Uplift, an organisation co-ordinating the Stop Cambo campaign:

“…Widespread public and political pressure are what’s made Cambo untenable,” she said.

“There is now broad understanding that there can be no new oil and gas projects anywhere if we’re going to maintain a safe climate.”

A seal surfacing into a man-made hole in Arctic sea ice is the perfect metaphor. What could this new disturbance possibly be in “the universe of the seal”?

And this goes even beyond what Tessa Khan called “a safe climate”, for that only implies a climate that is safe for people.

Oil and gas are incompatible with climate challenges

But remember the 2019 report by the United Nations that global scientific opinion thinks we are about to preside over the extinction of one million species.

Some of them you will never have heard of. But some of them will be the great whales and polar bears.

And do you know why this happens? Because, as John Muir told the world around 150 years ago:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Muir is the most quotable of writers, but that one is simply one of the great irrefutable truths of nature.

Cambo isn’t the end of the world, and all the Earth’s problems are not the fault of the oil industry. But it’s a high profile symptom.

The argument that you can achieve net zero only by creating more new oil fields and gas fields is seriously suspect.

It reminds me of that republican senator who said that the best solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Responding to Patrick Harvie’s assertion, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “It’s foolish to think we can just run away from oil and gas”.

Not as foolish as thinking the Earth can go on living with them.


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