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ON February 13, the night sky over Fife turned to virtual daylight as the vast Exxon-Shell petrochemical plant at Mossmorran began “flaring” natural gas – yet again. The resultant mini-sun was visible from across the Forth in Edinburgh. And the rocket-like roar of the burning gas not only jolted people awake in their beds, in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly, it reportedly caused houses to shake. It was all reminiscent of a scene out of Apocalypse Now, with Fife looking as if it had been napalmed. As, in a sense, it had been.
The environmental disaster that is Exxon-Shell Mossmorran is not a new thing. It has been getting steadily worse for at least half-a-dozen years. The real issue is the continuing inability of politicians and the regulatory authorities to resolve the problem, despite growing local anger and despite continued pressure from the green movement.
As long as Scottish ministers and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) seem unwilling or unable to tackle Mossmorran, few will believe in their ability to combat climate change successfully.
To get technical, flaring is a euphemism for torching the stream of ethane produced by Shell’s Mossmorran natural gas liquids plant, when the gas can’t be fed through to Exxon’s adjacent complex, where it is turned into the raw material for polythene plastic. Aside from the glare and the din, flaring results in humungous amounts of CO2 being vented directly into the atmosphere.
Back in November 2017, a Sepa report listed the Mossmorran complex as the third-biggest emitter of CO2 in Scotland, unnecessarily pumping a staggering 1.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses into Scottish skies, including 200,000 tonnes of CO2 discharge. Given that the Scottish Government missed its 2017 emissions target by two million tonnes, fully half of that failure was down to it not preventing Shell and Exxon at Mossmorran from polluting the atmosphere.
READ MORE: ExxonMobil apologises for Fife chemical plant’s ‘intense flaring’
Why do we have this particular problem? The answer is deceptively simple: Exxon is running down its Mossmorran plant because it wants to sell off its North Sea assets and concentrate investment in US fracking. Exxon has already sold its Norwegian oil and gas operations. Now it is looking to find a buyer for its UK assets, worth £1.65 billion. One wonders if that suggests Exxon has no interest in further investment in Mossmorran. The elderly main boilers at its Fife complex broke down in August, which is the reason gas from the Shell bit had to be flared.
Can you imagine if this was happening near London? If, perhaps, one of the big chemical plants around the Thames Estuary had resorted to flaring on repeated occasions? It would dominate the BBC headlines and government ministers would be falling over themselves to reassure the public action was in hand. But north of the Border, ministers have been more sanguine.
None attended an emergency public meeting in Lochgelly Town Hall last Friday, with Nicola Sturgeon saying it was important to respect the independence of the regulatory enforcement process.
Exxon also failed to make an appearance. But 120 folk from the local community did turn up to vent their frustrations (yet again). And they have a right to be frustrated: the Mossmorran complex has just re-opened after a six-month shutdown, during which repairs took place designed to reduce flaring. Only it hasn’t been reduced.
But I detect a certain reluctance to get involved with the Mossmorran debacle. For instance, Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse took to Twitter to explain he was leaving things to his environment colleagues who “rightly” were leading on the issue. He also explained that it was not for ministers to interfere with Sepa, the official regulator. So did Stewart Stevenson, a former minister for environment and climate change. Stewart insisted that any ministerial intervention would give Exxon grounds for suing the Scottish Government. God forbid we should stand up to Big Oil!
Paul Wheelhouse had meetings with Exxon last year, where he was briefed on the company’s £140 million “investment” designed to mitigate the boiler problem. He even rushed to the Holyrood chamber on September 19, to inform members: “My hope is that Sepa will not be required to use its enforcement powers and that ExxonMobil will move swiftly to implement the promised improvements”.
When a minister utters the phrase “my hope is that Sepa will not be required to use its enforcement powers [to ban flaring at Mossmorran]” – could that not be construed as interfering on behalf of Exxon?
The fact is that Sepa has been notoriously lax in preventing Exxon-Shell from flaring at Mossmorran. The regulator has sufficient licensing powers to force remedial action but has taken refuge in granting wavers, while conducting a lengthy “regulatory investigation” that was supposed to be published last year. The latest flaring episode came as a complete surprise to Sepa, though it is conducting daily, on-site monitoring. The agency issued a particularly mealy-mouthed statement in response: “With no indication of enhanced elevated flaring during our daily regulatory update, officers have this evening sought to establish the situation with the operator…”
READ MORE: Mossmorran workers walk out over safety fears after ‘intense flaring’
It went on: “We accept that flaring is causing people worry, anxiety and stress. That’s why our firm focus is on addressing the root causes of ‘unacceptable flaring’ and making flaring an exception rather than routine, which is currently not the case.”
Sepa has been repeating these meaningless apologies for half a decade with no discernible impact on the “routine” flaring at Mossmorran. Which makes Sepa part of the problem. Alas, ministers seem to think that stuffing the Sepa board with representatives of the energy companies and oil investment funds is a good way of making the regulator effective. On the contrary, we get “regulatory capture”. For instance, Nicola Gordon was appointed to the Sepa board in January 2018. Gordon spent three decades as a senior executive with Shell. Her Sepa register of interests reveals she still a shareholder. This is not to accuse Gordon of any impropriety. But there is an obvious potential conflict of interest here, when Sepa is dealing with Exxon-Shell at Mossmorran.
The solution is clear. Mossmorran should be closed immediately until it can be proven to operate without flaring. Plus, we need a plan, formulated in conjunction with the workforce, to transition away from hydrocarbon chemical production in Fife within a decade.
Scottish ministers must realise that the issue of Mossmorran will not go away and that they cannot leave matters to the regulator. Climate Camp Scotland has selected Mossmorran as the site for its 2020 event, to coincide with COP26 in Glasgow. Indeed, a representative of Climate Camp Scotland attended Friday’s Lochgelly public meeting.
According to the organisation’s website, the Mossmorran camp will “serve as a base for mass direct action against the fossil fuel industry”.
As a result, Mossmorran could become a global political flashpoint and a test of the Scottish Government’s willingness to confront Big Oil.