Scotland’s islands sense opportunity in independence debate
Oil and gas a powerful motive for island autonomy
Today, production is falling, but islanders believe there are now decades worth of production to be harvested in ever-more dangerous waters “west of Shetland”, as it is termed, while the decommissioning of existing oil and gas platforms offers newer, even more long-lasting , work.
Despite initial opposition, the oil and gas companies of the 1970s were eventually persuaded to make payments directly to the Shetland community up until 2000, which today has left islanders with a £200 million (€232 million) nest-egg.
However, even the Shetland Islands are not immune to harsh economic realities, which have forced the council – which once was responsible for more than a quarter of the islands’ total output – to lay off staff.
Some of the spending cuts are novel. In June, 17 housing estates had public lighting switched off, with lamp-posts removed – all in response not to the diktat of council officials, but, rather, a demand by locals. “Up here, people think it should be dark when it should be dark,” says Ian Brown, the chairman of the local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, dryly, “People quite like being able to see the stars, when there isn’t any fog, of course.”
Currently, Shetland is enjoying a mini-boom, due to the construction of a new gas terminal by the French oil giant, Total, with four-storey high accommodation barges brought in to house 800 building workers, including one that occupies much of Lerwick’s dock.
The Total terminal in Sullom Voe – where BP first began operations in the mid-1970s – will begin to accept gas from the Laggan and Tormore fields 125km north-west of Shetland in early 2014, before sending it on to Total’s terminal near Peterhead on the Aberdeenshire coast.
The local froth in the housing rental market – a cause of irritation for many – will continue for some time, however, since BP is set to spend much of the next five years upgrading its own terminal at Sullom Voe to deal with the expected riches from the Clair Ridge fields west of Shetland.
Acknowledging the importance of oil and gas, local councillor Alistair Cooper emphasises Shetland’s seafood industry, “one that is worth £310million a year, when oil and gas were only worth £45 million before the Total contract kicked off”.
“All of that depends critically on clean waters and the perception, just as importantly, that they are clean. In 2011, the Shetland economy was worth £1 billion – a third of that was down to seafood. That’ll tell you how important it is to us.”