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In North Sea Oil Fight, If Scotland Wins, Britain Freezes

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Alistair Darling, the leader of the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom, campaigns in Edinburgh. A no vote will keep Scotland in the UK. The British pound slid and the stock market shuddered on Monday after an opinion poll showed that Scots may vote for independence on Sept. 18.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Scotland leaves Britain, control of billions of pounds in annual North Sea oil revenue will be thrown into question.

  • Facts


    • Scottish offshore rigs produce 90 percent of Great Britain’s oil.
    • Oil wealth has made Aberdeen one of Britain’s wealthiest cities on a per-capita basis.
    • Although oil reserves are predicted to last another 30-40 years, production peaked more than a decade ago.
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Alexander Kemp is a popular man. The phone in his office on the third floor of the Edward Wright Building at the University of Aberdeen has hardly stopped ringing in months. Mr. Kemp, a professor of petroleum economics, advises the British and Scottish governments on the prospects for oil production in the North Sea.

“The BBC, a Spanish TV team and journalists from Belgium and France have called me,” the Scottish native reports. There is no doubt that Mr. Kemp’s expertise has made him a key figure in the debate over Scotland’s independence, which will be decided in a referendum on September 18.

Scottish nationalists cite the billions in revenues from the oil industry, which they see as the financial foundation of their independence plan. Great Britain is Europe’s second-largest oil producer, next to Norway, and 90 percent of its oil comes from wells off the Scottish coast. But the Scots receive only about 8 percent of tax revenues from their oil wealth – last valued at about £11 billion (€13.7 billion or $18 billion) a year – based on Scottish and British population figures.

The nationalists are betting on the financial resources of Scotland’s oil wealth, even more than on their whiskey, smoked salmon and financial industries.

These oil riches have also spelled prosperity for many of Aberdeen’s 230,000 residents. Helicopters circle the skies over the coastal city all day long, as they ferry workers to oil rigs far out at sea. Outside London, there is no other city in the United Kingdom with more people earning more than £100,000 per 1,000 inhabitants than Aberdeen.

If Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, has his way, all of Scotland will benefit from this oil wealth. The industry will produce “many billions of barrels for many decades,” he said in the last session of parliament before the referendum.

Mr. Kemp disagrees, saying: “It isn’t quite that easy.” As he explains, Scotland will be able to continue exploiting oil reserves off its coastline for at least another 30 to 40 years, but it is also clear that the industry has already passed the peak of the production boom in Scotland, as even the nationalists concede.

The biggest oil fields are becoming depleted, and the last significant new discovery happened years ago.

Production has steadily declined since 1999, dropping by 38 percent since 2010 alone. The biggest oil fields are becoming depleted, and the last significant new discovery happened years ago.

This realization prompts Sarah Meil, who works for a car rental company at the Aberdeen airport, to say: “I believe independence would be risky. Aberdeen is a rich city, but I don’t think it’s rich enough to pay for the entire country.”

Alex Salmond at an August 2014 debate in Glasgow with Alistair Campbell, one of the pro-Britain campaign leaders. Source DPA
Alex Salmond, the Scotland first minister, right, at a debate in August in Glasgow with Alistair Darling, a pro-Britain campaign leader. Source: Reuters


These misgivings over independence are also shared at the headquarters of oil multinational BP, which is 877 kilometers (548 miles) away. Sitting in the wood-paneled conference room at the company’s offices on exclusive St. James Square in London, Bob Dudley, its American chief executive, asks: “What will happen with the currency, and what about ties to Europe?”

All businesses share his concerns, he says. “My personal opinion is that Great Britain is big, and it should stick together.”

Mr. Dudley’s words reflect more than concern for the future of the country where his company is based. The tall executive is mainly worried about the future of his industry in a Scotland that has separated from Great Britain. BP warns against independence, because the company fears political instability.

Petroleum expert Mr. Kemp takes a more relaxed approach, noting that Scottish secession will not do serious damage to the oil business. Compared with the usual uncertainties in the oil sector, he explains, the risks emanating from an independent Scottish government would be relatively manageable.

Most of all, a new Scottish government would leave no doubt over the industry’s importance to the country, he adds, especially as it means more to the Scottish economy than to that of Great Britain as a whole. “Secession would have no dramatic impact on the oil business,” says Mr. Kemp.

The professor, born in Drumoak, some 12 kilometers outside Aberdeen, already knows how he intends to vote in the referendum. But unlike celebrities like Harry Potter writer Joanne K. Rowling, who publicly opposes the nationalists, Mr. Kemp prefers not to divulge how he will cast his ballot. “I don’t think this is a question of public interest,” he says.

In contrast, the BP chief executive apparently has no qualms about publicizing his clear vote against the Scottish nationalists. But Mr. Dudley, an American who resides in London, is clearly at a disadvantage against the scholar from the University of Aberdeen. He can voice his opinion on the referendum, but he can’t vote. Mr. Dudley won’t know whether his unsolicited advice has had any impact on the headstrong Scots until the referendum.

This article was translated by Christopher Sultan. To reach the author:

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