What the growth in Scottish oil and gas exports means for Scottish independence

£8.2bn for 2011-2012.

Oil and gas industry exports in Scotland reached £8.2bn for 2011-2012, according to new figures released by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. It is the fourteenth consecutive year of the growth in the sector.  

Beyond the sales of hydrocarbons, offshore equipment, construction and drilling services now account for almost half of sales around the world. Speaking at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, Texas, Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing said:

“The Scottish Government recognises the substantial contribution that the oil and gas industry makes to our economy. We are working with the industry to continue to strengthen Scotland's position as a global leader in the sector and these figures mark further growth in this important part of our economy. There are huge opportunities open to us internationally, and we are determined to make the most of them.”

The biggest trading partner for Scotland remained North America, with sales reaching $4bn last year, an increase of 2.8 per cent. Sales to Africa came in second, growing 5.9 per cent for the year. Other growth markets are also being targeted by the industry, but according to Danny Cusick, President, Americas, Scottish Development International, North America will remain the country’s number one priority for the foreseeable future:

"While other markets such as Brazil, Africa, the Middle East and Australia are increasingly becoming international priorities for Scotland, North America remains by far our top and most important region for exports. Continued investment by oil and gas companies from the U.S. and Canada is crucial to Scotland's long-term economic growth."

Supporting nearly 200,000 jobs in Scotland, plus an estimated 24 billion barrels of oil still to be produced from the North Sea, the national government’s support for this industry will add further fuel to the Scottish independence debate. The announcement comes after first minister Alex Salmond last month tried to bolster the case for independence by predicting a mini oil boom worth £57bn in tax revenues by 2017-18, but was quickly accused of cherry picking optimistic forecasts by his opponents.

However, with this latest announcement, plus the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change predicting oil prices of more than $150 a barrel by 2020, Salmond’s detractors could yet be proved wrong.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.