There was a moment last week, as David Cameron lectured MPs that “to govern is to choose”, when Whitehall farce combined with Scottish tragedy.
The farce is a Prime Minister quoting former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson when what Cameron was actually answering was not the big choices in a Budget, or between war and peace, but whether or not he should hold to his election manifesto and referendum commitments.
In both the referendum and the election Peterhead and therefore Scotland had been pledged the opportunity to create one of the world’s first commercial scale carbon capture power stations. It was a Prime Ministerial double cross covering both polls.
Callum McCaig, the increasingly impressive MP for Aberdeen South, made the point well. Was, Callum questioned, the decision to dump the Peterhead project, given the promises which had been made during the independence referendum, a betrayal of Peterhead and Scotland? Or was it rather a betrayal of the whole planet, given that this shabby retreat was sneaked out on the very cusp of the Paris summit on climate change.
The Prime Minister’s faltering and fundamentally silly reply indicated that the young member from Aberdeen had struck home. Cancelling Peterhead was the ultimate example of short-term thinking from a Prime Minister who wouldn’t recognise a strategic case if it bit him on the bahookie.
The long-term gain from carbon capture (CCS) is clear. Despite the world’s new-found and welcome enthusiasm for renewables post Paris, that in itself doesn’t deal with the coal and gas legacy which will pollute the planet for generations to come. However, by capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) and then securely and safely storing it we can start to address and counter the mistakes of the past.
Cameron’s reply, which seemed to imply that the technology isn’t working, caused consternation in the industry given that the two remaining contestants in the CCS had still to submit their final bids. It will also come as a surprise to both the Norwegians and Canadians who are pursuing CCS on a commercial scale.
It has been estimated that the redundant oil fields and saline aquifers of the North Sea alone could store all of the entire CO2 output for the whole of Europe for a century and more. Demonstrating that this can be done safely and to scale, potentially provides the single most effective way of countering the damage to the climate and transforming the ability to reduce dramatically the output of the most prevalent of greenhouse gases.
No one can say exactly how many people during the referendum were taken in by the No campaign’s claim that the proposed Peterhead carbon capture proposal between Shell and Scottish and Southern Electric was one of those “benefits of the Union” which would have been jeopardised by a Yes vote. What can be said though is that the Prime Minister thought it important enough to make that boast the centrepiece of last year’s Westminster Cabinet meeting in Aberdeen.
But that was then and this is now. Cameron clearly believes that it is no longer necessary to make concessions to the Jocks. Instead he sneers that “to govern is to choose”. In other words after Westminster extracting some £300 billion out of the North Sea in revenue it is now safe to turn down the spending of £1 billion which might help save the planet.
So where is the tragedy in all of this sorry tale? It’s a tragedy that such an opportunity is to be shunned. It would be a tragedy if Peterhead, with all of its natural advantages for exactly such a project, was never to have them brought to fruition. It is a tragedy for the international efforts on climate change that the UK Government are running away instead of leading the way in this technology.
But the real tragedy would be if we ever again believed a single word that these arrogant, unscrupulous, upper-crust, short-term Westminster chancers ever have to say about what was best for Scotland.