Talking point: Oil's well that ends well

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 4 March 2014

There was never any doubt that North Sea oil would feature heavily in the independence debate.

Events came to a head this week, with both David Cameron and Alex Salmond’s respective cabinets meeting in Aberdeen to pronounce their competing views for the future of the industry.

While Cameron claimed that the oil industry needed the UK’s ‘broad shoulders’, Salmond went on the attack, accusing Westminster of squandering the resource through decades of mismanagement.

Oil has been central to SNP campaigning ever since it flourished the slogan, ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’.

But the idea that people own a valuable natural resource – such as oil – simply by virtue of being born near it is in itself a bizarre concept.

I recently read ‘The Lost World’ – a classic Arthur Conan Doyle tale of explorers finding a hidden land filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts in South America.

Although dinosaurs clearly make for a great story, one of the most shocking parts of the book – apart from the constant, unquestioned racism – is a part of the story when our colonial explorers find a set of diamonds, worth millions of pounds in today’s money, and just take them.

Now, attitudes towards the colonial practice of going round the world and taking other people’s stuff has changed – though the debate between George Clooney and Boris Johnson over Britain’s right to keep the Parthenon marbles, taken from Greece, shows that the matter has not truly been settled.

But reading the book today, it comes across very much as if the explorers stole the diamonds, which surely belonged to the local population (presumably the dinosaurs had little interest).

It is widely accepted that ‘nations’ (another odd concept) own the materials that formed underneath their soil, or in the case of North Sea oil, around 200 kilometres off a coast line.

But materials such as oil and diamonds take millions of years to form – the stuff Cameron went to see could have been made from bits of old dinosaur - while they are being used up rapidly. North Sea oil was discovered in the 1970s, and will disappear in the coming decades.

Hydrocarbons are used, not just for energy, but to make plastics and medicines. There may be a time in the future when generations curse the short-term thinking which has led to our exploitation of this resource.

The question should perhaps not be whether the oil belongs to Scotland or the UK. A better one would be not which nation or bit of land owns it, but which generation.

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Liam Kirkaldy

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