Sunday, 29 June 2014

Oil Exploration and Trident

There is a headline today in the Sunday Post: Tories blocked oil boom in the Clyde, Heseltine admits.
This is the kind of headline that really irritates me because it is inaccurate on several levels.  The obvious one of course is Heseltine never used the term “oil boom”.  This is a creation of a sub-editor for dramatic effect.  The more important point is that since drilling has not taken place, nobody knows whether there would have been, or still might be oil reserves in the Clyde.  To claim an economic boom for the region was thus thwarted is just simply wrong.  The real situation is that nobody knows.

In a separate article, MSP Chic Brodie (SNP) claims all this has been a cover up, implying that with malicious intent it is a fiendish Westminster plot to keep the Clyde poor.  He bases this claim that since Infrastata, an oil exploration company got a licence to drill off Larne, and the same geological formations exist under the Clyde, it is obvious that the Clyde area should also be explored.

Let us have a look at this.  Under the North Sea, there is a layer of sandstone (The Rotliegendes) that forms the reservoir for both Dutch and English gas reserves in the southern sector.  One possible place where it could be drilled onshore for exploration purposes is on the coast of Cumbria.  The only problem though is that the site is already used by the Sellafield nuclear power station.  The reason one does not drill for gas next to a nuclear power station is that of safety.

Similarly, during the Cold War, Polaris (and later Trident) armed boats were coming and going through the Clyde to the base at Faslane.  I think people are forgetting what those times were like.  Regardless of whether the threat from the Soviet Union was all that it was cracked up to be or not, if people at the time would have been asked what was more important: another patch of sea opened for oil exploration or the safe passage of our nuclear-armed fleet, the overwhelming majority at the time would treated the questioner as being some kind of lunatic even for asking.  We were not asked though because all such discussions about the movements of Britain’s nuclear fleets is of the highest secrecy.  There was enough trouble at the time with trawlers being mysteriously sunk, and submarines taking the blame, without in addition to that risking collisions between oil rigs and boats armed with nuclear weapons.

Worlds change and while Russia is no longer the ideological threat it once was, the rise of nationalism under Putin is increasingly sinister.  Unfortunately this strengthens the argument that a nuclear deterrent has to be maintained.  If I still had the mind-set I had in the Eighties, this would surely be my view.  I have changed though and am now disgusted by very ownership of nuclear weapons.  I would love to see Britain give them up.  While we still have them though, their safety must be ensured.  I am not arguing that the Clyde should never be drilled; with advancements in technology, perhaps it is possible to do safely now in the 21st Century what was not in the 1980s.  If the Scottish government wishes to see Clyde being explored, it should be a matter they raise with Westminster.  If deemed not safe, if one has to go, then indeed let it be the nuclear base.

It was not as if other parts of the west coast were left unexplored.  In 1998, I performed work as part of an exploration rig about fifty miles off the Isle of Lewis.  Once I got on board, I sought out the wellsite geologist.
“Why are we drilling here?” I asked.
“Ooh, can’t tell you,” was the reply.  “Tight well.”  [Meaning a well where all data access is closely controlled].
“How deep is the hole?”
“Eight and a half thousand feet.”
“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll tell you what I think you have, then you can say whether I am right or not.”  He agrees to this.
“Six and a half thousand feet of volcanic ash.”
“Actually,” the geologist admits.  “It’s seven thousand feet of volcanic ash.”
“Why on earth did you drill here?”
“It looked so good on the seismic!”  came the reply
There was another rig out there at the same time, the John Shaw (if I recall) which shows that companies did (and for all I know, still do) have access to other parts of the west coast.  It is just they didn't find anything then.  The only way they could know for certain is to drill.

I am sure the irony would not be lost on many that we may see others in the Yes camp, the Greens in particular, campaigning both to shut Faslane and to have no drilling in the Clyde.
What is disingenuous though  is for the Yes Campaign to claim that exploration was blocked to spite Scotland’s west coast; that the decision represents some form of economic treachery.   The decision not to drill the Clyde was obviously based upon grounds of safety.