Coronavirus fracking crisis: Scotland dodged a bullet

New figures for the first quarter of 2020 have revealed an astonishing collapse in the profitability of shale gas extracting (fracking) firms in the US.

Since the global pandemic was announced, governing institutions around the world have worked hard at maintaining popular focus on a singular abstract threat. More than one at any time can lead to confusion, and then a loss of central authority.

This has been a challenge, given the pandemic crisis is really only one movement in a global spasm, triggering the dysfunction of every major political and economic system. The world economy has sustained a historically unique trauma, the consequences of which are far from fully understood. Just one facet of that shock can have profound consequences for any given national economy.

Scotland is far more than just an oil nation, and yet violent fluctuations in global energy prices have presented it with serious dangers in its North Sea fields. Some unionist politicians and commentators have welcomed this crisis as an opportunity to kick the cause of Scottish independence. One could just as easily interpret it as a necessary point of departure for a more just and sustainable energy sector.

But these same commentators have gone very quite on another aspect of the global fossil fuels price collapse: the crisis in the shale gas industry.

New figures for the first quarter of 2020 have revealed an astonishing collapse in the profitability of shale gas extracting (fracking) firms in the US. A survey of 39 companies, including some of the largest shale gas producers, by Rystad Energy recorded $38 billion in write-offs as collapsing prices led to backlogs in storage facilities.

The fall-off in profits is expected to slaughter enterprises in the next two years. Rystad Energy have predicted that as many as 250 firms could face closure, a sign of the extent of excess capacity after years of the so-called ‘shale gale’, when a bonanza of profits was available to fracking companies despite mounting evidence that their activities poisoned the environment and resident populations.

In 2016, some of these profiteering frackers began sending their shale gas to Scotland, to be processed at the Ineos works in Grangemouth. The imports were widely interpreted as a snub to the Scottish Government, which had enraged Ineos chief executive Jim Ratcliffe (worth over $19 billion at the start of this year) by bowing to campaigning pressure and refusing, from the devolution of new licensing powers in 2018, to grant the rights to frack in Scotland.

Most of the available gas deposits in Scotland are beneath the central belt – the most heavily populated part of the country. The exploitation of this gas, would have dragged the toxic dynamics of fossil capitalism into the heart of the population, where whole workforces could be adopted and abandoned as the numbers change on the boards in New York and London.

Scotland has dodged a bullet: pinning its future to yet another unstable and destructive commodity.

None of this should be cause for smugness. The reality of modern Scotland remains one of cruel economic imbalances and a feeble industrial base. North Sea oil is far from the only bounty-turned-nail-bomb product we invest in. Scotland’s over-determining financial system is a cause for speculation and conspicuous waste on a vast scale, as the tortured city it lives in can testify.

And a further reality gestures to us from beyond lockdown – mass unemployment. Some will urge us to make good this new horror by giving in to the demands of the Ratcliffes. It is an urging that should be resisted for a real, democratic and sustainable industrial strategy.


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