YOU DON’T NEED ME to tell you that media coverage in Scotland has been hijacked by two major topics recently. The first, and most important is, of course the Covid-19 virus pandemic which has captured most of the headlines for weeks now. Behind that and very much in second place is the so-called “trial of the century”, in which former First Minister Alex Salmond has faced his accusers in the High Court in Edinburgh. There isn’t a great deal of room for anything else bar these two at the moment.
Other events and issues continue, however, and arguably were it not for the coronavirus and Mr Salmond the ongoing saga of flaring from the chemical plant at Mossmorran in Fife would perhaps find itself much further up the news schedules.
By way of background, the Mossmorran Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) plant covers about 250 acres near Cowdenbeath. There are two separate but interconnected processing facilities on site, plus an associated sea-going tanker loading dock at Braefoot Bay on the Firth of Forth some four miles to the south. The plant processes natural gases, mainly from the North Sea Brent Field, which are delivered by pipeline from the St Fergus gas terminal in Aberdeenshire. The owners and operators are Shell and ExxonMobil.
The gas products are “cracked” at the site, with excess gas “flared off” (ie burnt) from several masts which are up to 100 metres high. When flaring occurs, the flame can oftentimes be seen from many miles away. When I lived high up in the Lammermuirs south of Haddington in East Lothian we could see the flaring from our kitchen window quite clearly a distance of over 25 miles. The kids called it “the flame of life”, although in retrospect the Eye of Sauron might have been more appropriate.
Flaring is either planned, that is notified in advance to the local community and appropriate authorities (eg SEPA), or unplanned, prompted by some technical mishap or breakdown and liable to happen at short notice. It would appear that whilst both forms are unwelcome to the local community, it is the latter which is the main bone of contention. In addition to the bright flames which can light up the night dramatically, it is accompanied by a loud roaring sound sometimes likened to that of a jet engine, vibration affecting nearby properties, and plumes of presumably noxious smoke.
Living next to or near to this is no fun, obviously. In addition to sleepless or disturbed nights on account of the bright flames, local residents have complained of sore throats, breathing difficulties, and anxiety. The Mossmorran Action Group (MAG) was set up a few years ago to represent the concerns of the local community and has been campaigning to have local complaints addressed properly.
It would appear that over the past three years or so incidents of flaring at Mossmorran have increased significantly, possibly because as the plant ages its equipment becomes more prone to breakdown, and restarting the processes after repair almost inevitably leads to flaring. MAG has been increasingly vociferous in its calls for the Scottish Government, SEPA, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the operators to take all measures available to them to stop it, but to little avail. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, in whose portfolio Scottish Government accountability seems mainly to rest, has proved remarkably reluctant to engage. Scottish Ministers as a whole seem to be hiding behind the line that while SEPA is formally investigating matters – which it is – it would be inappropriate for ministers to become involved. Aye, right.
I’m fascinated by the lack of Scottish Government engagement. You would have thought that, with all its climate change, carbon neutral, right-on virtue signalling it would jump at the opportunity to regulate an environment polluting, health threatening, fume belching industrial complex right on its doorstep. But no. So what’s going on here?
Is the Government reluctant to irritate Shell and ExxonMobil for financial reasons? Is it in thrall to them because of their sway over the Scottish economy as a whole? Well, Mossmorran, and the Scottish oil and gas sector generally, sends most of the economic benefit it generates for the country to Her Majesty’s Treasury via corporation tax. True, business rates go to the Scottish Government, as does income tax under the new arrangements. There are, however, only roughly 200 jobs or so at the site (approximately 1,800 in the sector in Fife as a whole), and although the average salary of workers is £40k, which is substantial, the income tax revenue to the Government is not that significant.
Now, it would be interesting to speculate whether the costs to the NHS and environmental agencies in Scotland from Mossmorran’s health and environment impacts are greater than the revenue it returns to the Scottish Government in rates and taxation. Alas, I am not qualified to make a sound judgment here, nor am I economically literate enough to know where to source such data, or even to understand it if I knew where to find it. But it’s a question worth asking and others may wish to explore further.
So, to return to my question: why is the Government fighting shy of getting involved with this? I don’t know, to be honest. I can only guess that they fear that if they press too hard Shell and ExxonMobil will up sticks and leave. There have been persistent rumours that they are both keen to invest elsewhere in other energy related projects that may be far more financially attractive. Again, this might just be idle speculation, but if they did throw in the towel it would be just another economic headache to add to the list which includes Prestwick, the Sick Kid’s Hospital, Ferguson Marine and others. I don’t really think St Andrew’s House wants to even start contemplating taking over Mossmorran, do you?
In the meantime MAG plugs away at Government, operators and agencies to get its voice heard. It has had some success with media coverage, both local and national, and claims widespread support in the local communities. I think most Scots will be sympathetic to their cause. MAG just needs, in my opinion, to be a bit smarter in its political strategy if it wants to coerce Ministers to come to the table, and they are up against the hefty and experienced public affairs machines of Shell and ExxonMobil. It is truly a David and Goliath struggle.
MAG may actually have Covid-19 to thank for being able to avoid one potential poo trap in the future. A group apparently called Climate Camp Scotland, with “links to Extinction Rebellion and Climate Action Scotland”, announced earlier in March that they were planning to hold a five day climate camp at Mossmorran between 9-19 July this summer. I think MAG would have to be very careful to distance itself from this initiative, because if it became too closely identified with the nose-ringed and be-dreadlocked itinerant eco-warriors who tend to be part of such things – smashing the state while happily drawing benefits from it to sustain their chosen anarchic lifestyle – then support from middle Scotland would likely disappear like snow off a dyke. But with a bit of luck Coronavirus restrictions will knock it on the head.
Personally, I have every sympathy with MAG and the local communities whose lives continue to be blighted by the flames, smoke, and vibration emanating all too frequently from the industrial complex in their midst. Time for the Scottish Government to step up to the plate and deal with this poison on our doorstep.
© Stuart Crawford (with thanks to Richard Marsh for additional input) 2020