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Alex Salmond has compared Nicola Sturgeon’s opposition to new North Sea oil fields to Margaret Thatcher’s treatment of the coal industry as he warned her stance was a “stunning step backwards” for independence.
The former First Minister said that the political consequences of Ms Sturgeon’s announcement last week “could be far reaching” for both the SNP and the campaign to break up Britain, with tens of thousands of votes in the north-east of Scotland being lost.
He said that the current First Minister asking for people to support her in these communities, which are highly reliant on oil jobs, would be like Mrs Thatcher “campaigning for votes in the old mining areas of Cowdenbeath and Kelty”.
Listing other areas that rely on oil and gas for their local economies, he concluded: “Much more seriously, it’s Mossmorran no more, Grangemouth no more, St Fergus no more – and independence no more.”
Mr Salmond also mocked Ms Sturgeon’s pledge that her government will establish a fund to ensure a “just transition” away from oil and gas, noting that the controversial Cambo field alone would be expected to generate $40 billion (£30 billion) if it is given the go-ahead.
In a direct challenge to his former protegee, he said: “That is just from one field. How exactly is a devolved government going to deploy that sort of funding?”
For weeks, the First Minister has urged Boris Johnson to review the drilling licence for the Cambo field, off the coast of Shetland, while repeatedly refusing to state whether she personally opposed the development.
She dramatically came off the fence last week, telling MSPs she did not think that Cambo “should get the green light” and that the development “couldn’t and shouldn’t pass any rigorous climate assessment”.
In an extraordinary development, which tore up the SNP’s long-standing economic case for independence, Ms Sturgeon went even further by stating: “I don’t think we can go and continue to give the go-ahead to new oil fields.”
However, Oil and Gas UK, the trade body for the offshore oil and gas industry, warned that stopping domestic production would merely increase reliance on imports from countries such as Russia and Qatar, which would cost more and have a far greater carbon footprint.
Drilling at Cambo could start next year and continue for 25 years. Siccar Point Energy, the firm behind the development, says it could create more than 1,000 jobs directly and more in the supply chain.
An exploration licence was granted for the field in 2001 and the Oil and Gas Authority is now considering whether to give its approval.
Writing in the Sunday Mail, Mr Salmond said the “immediate reaction” to Ms Sturgeon’s announcement among SNP rank-and-file members was “consternation”.
He said: “Even ultra-loyalists in the north-east of Scotland are baulking at how to defend on the doorstep a party which effectively wants to shut down the area’s key industry.
“It would be akin to Margaret Thatcher, having closed the pits, then campaigning for votes in the old mining areas of Cowdenbeath and Kelty.”
Arguing Ms Sturgeon’s stance also damaged the separatist case, the Alba Party leader said oil and gas “have been a symbol of the vast resource base of Scotland, which help make us such a solid economic prospect as an independent state”.
He contrasted her position with “how serious governments address issues”, noting that Erna Solberg, the former prime minister of Norway, had pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 but to “develop not dismantle” the oil and gas industry.
Mr Salmond argued that Cambo should be given the green light “but with a condition for it to be a zero-carbon development”.
This could be achieved by forcing Shell and the other developers to fund a “pioneering carbon capture” project linked to the site, he argued.
An SNP spokesman said: “It is time for politicians of all colours to get real on the climate emergency. Our journey to tackling climate change involves a just transition away from fossil fuels.”
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