FIFTY years ago, on September 14 1969, the Seaquest drilling rig struck oil for the first time in the North Sea. Brendan McKeown, its superintendent, took a helicopter out there as soon as he was radioed the news that oil was flowing. Famously, he put it in a pickle jar commandeered from the canteen and took it back to Amoco’s Great Yarmouth office, where it was poured into an ash tray, sniffed and set alight. His boss, Mitch Watt, declared: “That’s it. It’s oil.”

It’s now half a century since that eureka moment and around 45 billion barrels of oil equivalent have been extracted from the North Sea. Though the Arbroath field was considered too small to warrant development at that time, it wouldn’t be long before a vast reservoir of crude oil was struck in 1970, the Forties field, and our time as a significant oil-producing nation had come.

“It's Scotland's oil” soon became the slogan of the Scottish National Party. Oil and who we were, as well as how we lived, became entwined. We were still some way from learning that our black gold came with an atmospheric side-effect, though, as it happens, in 1968, The Stanford Research Institute presented a report to the American Petroleum Institute that warned the release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels could carry harmful consequences for the planet.

There has been a lot of good news stories lately from the world of North Sea oil. Last year BP opened Clair Ridge, targeting, it said, “640 million barrels of recoverable resource”. In August, Equinor began extracting oil from the Mariner field, 95 miles east of Shetland, which is expected to yield 300 million barrels of heavy crude oil.

Drilling activity is increasing following record-low levels in recent years. The Oil and Gas Authority has increased central production projection out to 2050 so that it is “now 3.9 billion barrels higher than it was in 2015”. There is talk that another 20 billion barrels could remain, to be exploited, in the UK Continental Shelf.

Nevertheless a dark cloud – the climate crisis – threatens. Every one of these barrels comes with a carbon emissions price tag. The big issue is, in an era of climate emergency, should we even be extracting it at all? It's no longer simply a question of how much more we can find, but how much we may need to leave in the ground. Can we continue to extract from the North Sea and yet still hit our targets of net zero by 2045 in Scotland, or 2050 in the UK?

Some believe we can’t. One of the big ideas being discussed by environmentalists is the need for a “managed phase-out” – a plan for how we turn off the taps while making sure not only that we provide enough green energy, but that those with industry jobs are not left behind.

Greg Muttitt, research director at climate and energy think-tank Oil Change International, is author of a report called Sea Change: Climate Emergency, Jobs And Managing The Phase-out Of UK Oil And Gas Extraction. He believes it is time to put a stop on further exploration and begin a retreat from oil.

At an event this week in Edinburgh, he and co-author Anna Markova argued that those who once had jobs in the oil sector could be retrained with skills for the renewables sectors or in retrofitting homes. As many as 180,000 new jobs, they estimated, could be created if we went fully renewable.

But there are still few signs that politicians have an appetite for a deliberate retreat from oil and gas. Just over a week ago Nicola Sturgeon, asked whether she planned to “turn off the taps”, replied: "I’m not going to do that because these are complex issues. What would happen is that we would have to have substituted imports of oil and gas, perhaps from countries, with a higher carbon density because there are less rigid regulations.”

Sturgeon is right that it is a complex issue. The industry provides 280,000 jobs across the UK. Energy security is crucial. According to UK Committee on Climate Change modellings, demand for oil and gas, even in 2050, looks likely to remain fairly high. If predictions are accurate, given our reserves, the native UK oil industry would be able to provide only 30% of our fossil fuels, by comparison with the 59% it is now.

So it's not surprising that the oil industry still sees itself as having a huge role in the future. Deirdre Michie, chief executive of Oil and Gas UK which recently published its Roadmap To 2035: A Blueprint For Net Zero, says: “Our projections are consistent with the Climate Change Committee projections which show a continued need for oil and gas out to 2050 as part of a diverse energy mix.

"It’s important we meet as much of that demand from domestic production, providing security of energy supply while retaining the skills and expertise of the sector to support the development of low-carbon technologies.”

Roadmap 2035 appears to be the oil and gas industry’s pitching of themselves as the solution to climate change, rather than the problem – its argument for why the oil industry is who we need to sort it out while continuing to provide us with the stuff that is the prime source of emissions (90% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from fossil fuels). The roadmap report frequently mentions "maximising economic recovery", a strategy that chiefly involves maxing out the reserves. Among its plans are to reduce the emissions associated with production of oil and gas and support and develop mitigation technologies.

But in the years leading up to now, the oil sector has clearly been the problem rather than the solution. A 2018 report by CDP found that the world’s oil companies were spending a tiny fraction of their investment budgets on low-carbon projects – on aggregate just 1.3% of their total 2018 capital expenditure.

A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that, globally, coal, oil and gas were getting 3.7 times the subsidies renewables were, and estimated that just 10-30% of those fossil fuel subsidies would pay for a global transition to clean energy.

Oil and gas have been deemed among our greatest national assets for so long that it’s hard to let go of the idea that it isn’t best for the oil industry to extract as much as it can and make the most of it. That, after all, is essentially what the government has asked the industry to do in its Maximise Economic Recovery strategy.

Yet, according to a 2015 study in the scientific journal Nature, an estimated third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and more than 80% of known coal reserves should remain unused in order to meet global temperature targets under the Paris Agreement.

Of course, the 20 billion barrels still left in the UK Continental Shelf is a small fraction of the wider global reserves, which according to a 2018 estimate were about 1.73 trillion barrels. We could say, they are not so significant. But at the same time, our extracting every barrel we can sends out a message to the world. We are not leaving our third in the ground.

If all countries were to follow our approach of phasing out coal while maximising oil and gas extraction, the Sea Change report says, "resulting warming would significantly exceed 2°C". According to a 2016 report in Nature Climate Change, if we were, globally, to burn all global fossil fuels, we could be on a journey to a 10°C global temperature rise.

Scotland may be otherwise well placed to tell a story about itself as a forward-thinking pioneer towards net zero, but others are being more bold than the UK on this issue – for instance New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, who last year announced a ban on all new offshore oil exploration permits. As Muttitt puts it: "The elephant in the room is Scotland's policy to Maximise Economic Recovery of oil and gas. When the global climate summit comes to Glasgow next year, this contradiction could become an embarrassment."

No one is looking for us to turn off the oil and gas tap today. What groups like Friends of the Earth Scotland are calling for is the establishing of an "end date". There is no avoiding the fact that a dramatic transition is necessary – the question is who will define it, and what its timeline will be.

Who creates the story of climate emergency Scotland? The oil industry? The renewables sector? Civil society?

The taps are set to turn off at some point, even if it is in the worst case scenario of a climate crisis stricken world, in which we finally have taken the last economically viable barrel of oil from the ground. Better to fully grapple with the transition now, campaigners say, to start creating a new Scotland in which our economic and political future is not dependent on how much oil we can find and extract.

And if we do embrance that fossil fuel-free future, we might want to think about a new slogan for our times. Not, "It's Scotland's oil", but "It's Scotland's carbon budget."

The environmentalist roadmap

For many climate change campaigners, the bottom line is that every barrel of crude oil or equivalent gas, adds more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

According to Greg Muttitt, if, globally, all countries were only to use their already developed reserves, in the absence of any properly effective negative emissions technologies, that would set us on a course towards 2°C rise – and that, as last year’s ominous IPCC 1.5 °C report described, brings a strong risk of climate disaster.

However, the current plan in the UK is not just to stop at the six billion barrels there already is in developed fields. It’s to find still more oil and gas, to pursue the 20 billion barrels they think are out there. This summer, the UK issued 37 new licences for exploration and production rights.

Echoing Murtitt’s call for a phased taps-off is Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Institute.

“The UK,” he says, “should rapidly put in place a phased shutdown of all fossil fuel production, to be completed by around 2035. This needs to begin now and broadly be cutting output at something approaching (measured in CO2) 10-15% each year. This matches the mitigation rate of the UK’s Paris-compliant emission pathway and carbon budget (for energy).”

Anderson’s figures differ from those of the UK Committee on Climate Change in that, unlike theirs, his do not rely “on planetary-scale negative emission technologies”, which he believes have shown insufficient promise. They also factor in a greater level of global fairness.

Essentially the issue around how much oil we can afford to extract boils down to a number of different debates. Among them is the question of how much of the global pie of carbon budget that Scotland, an already developed country, should in all fairness get. Another is what proportion of emissions can be mitigated through carbon capture or negative emissions technologies – some say that we are putting too many hopes on this yet to be perfected technology given there are only 43 working carbon capture projects in the world.

Our relationship to oil is indeed complex. Beyond our need for it in our cars, homes, aeroplanes and other aspects, we remain wedded to oil and gas because of what else it brings us, or we believe it brings us. Taxes for instance – though we might want to look what fiscal benefits the UK is really getting from oil. In the tax years 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Treasury gave more money to oil companies than it took from them in taxes, although in that time BP and ExxonMobil made more than £1 billion in profits.

Then there are the jobs the oil industry has provided. Thinking about turning off the taps means also thinking about how we ensure employment for all in the sector.

Mary Church, campaign director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, which published the Sea Change report, describes a so-called Just Transition as a process that would involve all the relevant stakeholders, particularly the workers and communities. If we don't commit to this, she says, we "face a deeply damaging deferred collapse of the oil and gas sector, that will hurt workers and communities the most, as the reality of the climate crisis hits home and forces a shutdown”.

Jobs on tap

Comment by Anna Markova, Sea Change report author:

We know that tackling the climate emergency means quickly scaling back the amount of oil, gas and coal that we take out of the ground and burn. This means oil-extracting countries have a choice:

• Option A: start scaling back the drilling now, in a gradual way, with time to build up alternative industries and take care of the communities that depend on oil now.

• Option B: wait until later and face a much quicker, chaotic shutdown. I know which option I’d choose, but what does it look like?

Scotland’s potential for concentrating clean energy industries is huge: an estimated 46 gigawatts viable fixed offshore wind resource (with only 5GW already planned), and even bigger potential for floating offshore windfarms (over 120 GW), not to mention pioneering centres for tidal and wave energy.

And offshore renewable energy is a viable pathway for firms and workers in the oil and gas supply chains. Many Scottish specialist scaffolding and construction firms as well as marine crews already work interchangeably on oil rigs and offshore windfarms.

Other oil and gas supply companies will find applications in advanced water and waste treatment and innovative heat networks, according to research by Arup. Undoubtedly, workers and supply chain firms need support and guarantees to make the leap from old industries to new securely.

Two big questions remain. First, can there be enough jobs in the clean energy economy?

We modelled how many jobs could be created over time in some of the most compatible clean energy industries – wind, wave, tidal and energy efficiency retrofits – in three possible futures.

In the first future, neither the Scottish nor UK governments do anything else to help the industries grow. In this case, the number of jobs in wind energy is similar to the number of oil and gas workers potentially affected by the transition, but nowhere near enough to actually replace oil and gas employment.

But in the second future, if Scotland and the rest of the UK build as many new windfarms and tidal and wave energy generators as industry and politicians currently say is feasible, and retrofit their housing stock to boot, over three new clean energy jobs can be created per oil worker affected.

And in the third, "fully renewable" future (ie enough clean energy sources to fully replace oil and gas), job creation over time is even greater.

So it’s perfectly possible to fully replace the economic contribution of the oil and gas industry by betting on renewable energy – if government does its job right.