Why are Aberdeen City Council, Opportunity North East, Invest Aberdeen, and others calling their proposal to industrialise the coastal green belt to the south of the City an “Energy Transition Zone”? What do they mean by “Energy Transition Zone”?
On 2nd March 2020, a proposal to change the Local Development Plan to remove green belt protection from a Community Park and a Rare Breed’s Farm in the Torry area of Aberdeen was passed by the current administration of Aberdeen City Council. This was done to enable industrial development there.
The Council claimed this was in response to a “Feasibility Study” prepared by a lobbying/ consultation firm, Barton Willmore, and commissioned by Aberdeen City Council, Opportunity North East (an economic forum set up by the Oil Tycoon Sir Ian Wood) and Invest Aberdeen (an organisation established in 2018 by Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire councils with the aim of growing investment in the region).
The choice of Barton Willmore, an Oil and Gas industry consultancy/ lobbying firm to write the study is an interesting one. Here are some quotes from the brochure advertising their services.
“We have witnessed growing opposition amongst some local communities and environmental groups to fossil fuels and the UK Oil and Gas sector. Concerns amongst small but vociferous well-organised anti-fracking protestors has resulted in a large number of objections”
“responding effectively to objections helps to ensure that planning officers have the confidence and technical knowledge to advise local authority Councillors that any public concerns are either unfounded or can be effectively mitigated”
“Whether it is influencing planning policy, managing complex planning applications and environmental risk or influencing stakeholder perceptions, we can assist in delivering the required consents.”
In other words, our Local Authority has used our money to fund a company that regards people who are rightly concerned about catastrophic global climate change as an impediment to “business as usual” for the fossil fuel industry. This is a company that openly advertises its expertise in assisting Council planning officers to down-play public concerns to elected representatives. A company that boasts it can help Council officers to assure Councillors that concerns are either unjustified, or that adverse impacts can be compensated for. The aim of employing a company like Barton Willmore is to “market” unwelcome developments. As Shakespeare said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. A dirty great industrial development on a community park remains a dirty great industrial development on a community park no matter what title the marketing men dream up.
We all know what energy transition means. For many decades we have been reliant on “cheap” energy from fossil fuels. Now we’ve changed the climate. That energy was only “cheap” because the cost of climate change was disregarded. Even if we stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, climate change will not stop. As the Royal Society explain “The current CO2-induced warming of Earth is therefore essentially irreversible on human timescales. The amount and rate of further warming will depend almost entirely on how much more CO2humankind emits.”
The nations of the world finally got serious in 2015. A legally binding Treaty to cut carbon emissions was entered into by 169 nations in Paris of that year.
The Council’s claim that they are responding to the “Feasibility Study” is a circular argument. The brief given to Barton Willmore was “the identification and review of one or a series of sites to accommodate real world deliverable land options for up to 30ha, suitable for energy related development and capable of supporting an energy transition zone on land to the south of Torry, East Tullos, Altens, the Bay of Nigg and Aberdeen South Harbour.” The Council told them what to do, and they did what they were asked to do.
And what is an “energy transition zone”? Barton Willmore explain.
“Energy Transition Zone’ (‘ETZ’) is not a universal term, however, in the context of this report it is a vehicle to promote a particular City to end users who specialise in this market and to prepare the necessary sites and infrastructure required to support that development.”
In summary, Barton Willmore was told by the Council, (and paid using public money), to find development sites close to the Harbour extension so that these sites can be “prepared” and “infrastructure” installed, in a bid to attract renewable energy business to Aberdeen. It is an old-fashioned speculative business venture – we will build it, they will come. An “energy transition zone” is, in short, a marketing ploy, a bit of rhetoric dreamed up by a lobbying/consultancy firm to make a dishonest land-grab in a poor area sound more palatable, by selling it as an essential initiative to mitigate man-made climate change.
The “Energy Transition Zone” got its first public airing in an Energy Voice Article on 24th January of 2020. The person doing the airing was the Oil Tycoon, Sir Ian Wood, announcing his vision for responding to the climate emergency by developing an area at the Harbour Extension in order to place Aberdeen at the forefront of key energy technologies such as hydrogen, offshore wind, and carbon capture and storage.
Hydrogen? On St Fittick’s Park? Hydrogen, as those among us who believe in the upcoming “hydrogen economy” are fond of pointing out, is the most common element in the world. What they don’t point out is that it is not usually found in the free state, where it can be used as a fuel, but held by very strong chemical bonds to other elements. The water molecule has two atoms of hydrogen, and one of oxygen. If a strong electrical charge is put through water it is possible to separate out the hydrogen. Electrolysis of water is the technology advocates of the “hydrogen economy” refer to when they are talking up hydrogen’s benefits as a clean green energy carrier. It’s very expensive and energy inefficient to produce hydrogen in this way. Green hydrogen makes up a tiny percentage of total hydrogen production. The International Energy Authority report that 0.36 metric tons of green, low carbon hydrogen was produced in 2019. That’s about half a percent of annual hydrogen demand. 99.5 of hydrogen is produced from natural gas using a technology called the steam methane reforming process. This is an incredibly filthy process. It’s estimated to produce 9.3 kg of CO2 for every 1 kg of H2 produced. So is Sir Ian suggesting that there is a previously unknown power source just waiting to be used in St Fittick’s Park to manufacture hydrogen? https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/06/06/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-hydrogen-production/?sh=3ac7ce3a24bd
Carbon capture is when carbon dioxide is trapped at the emission source, compressed to form a liquid, and transported to where it can be stored. Suitable storage locations are depleted oil and gas reservoirs, coalbeds and deep saline aquifers. Not a lot of them in St Fittick’s Park.
But wait – Sir Ian continues “It will also have manufacturing, servicing and assembly facilities for offshore wind, seeking to attract “major players” in renewables prepared to carry out lucrative work on turbines.” Sir Ian wants the Community Park for a marshalling yard. So “Energy Transition Zone” is nu-speak for a “Marshalling and Assembly” yard. Why didn’t he just come clean in the first place, instead of coming out with all that waffle? There’s further evidence that this is what Sir Ian has in mind in the “Feasibility Study”. There are umpteen references to the need for flat level space next to the harbour, land hungry renewables and so forth.
Why does Sir Ian Wood have the power to dictate public planning policy, and why is he suddenly full of concern over climate change? He is, as previously stated, an oil tycoon. What caused this “Road to Damascus” conversion? He has been, after all, one of the Oil and Gas industry’s strongest allies. He was invited down to Westminster by David Cameron to put forward his suggestions on the future of Oil and Gas in the UK. He was responsible for the controversial, climate busting “maximum economic recovery” policy for North Sea Gas and Oil, now written into UK legislation.
On 20thJanuary, 2020, the Oil and Gas Authority, an organisation set up through the auspices of Sir Ian Wood, told the industry that their days were numbered.
Tim Eggar, the OGA chair said “industry’s social licence to operate is under threat and there is no scope for a second chance.” “Public opinion on climate change, and the Government’s legally-binding commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 (2045 in Scotland), means that we have to do everything we can to contribute to achieving this.”
The writing is on the wall. Fossil fuels are on the way out. Renewables are cheaper, cleaner, and don’t involve destroying the natural environment, on which all the species of the earth, including us humans, are dependent. It took fifty years and the binding legislation of the Paris Agreement, but the process of decarbonisation of our energy system has started. Oil and Gas companies are looking at stranded assets. Sir Ian and his ilk, ever resourceful, are looking for business opportunities.
Sir Ian has, in addition to his strong political links in Westminster, strong political links Aberdeen. These come from his involvement with the Aberdeen City Region Deal. City Region Deals were introduced by the Westminster Conservative Government in 2013 “to devolve power from Westminster, and through funding from Central Government, fund locally initiated projects that would promote Regional Growth.” The previous Aberdeen City Council administration, a Labour/ Conservative/ Independent coalition, and the SNP/Labour/Independent Aberdeenshire “progressive alliance” were approached by Sir Ian in 2015, to discuss setting up a City Region Deal. Sir Ian had formed an organisation Opportunity North East (ONE) with a stated aim “of addressing the long-term economic challenges in the North East”. The Aberdeen City Region deal was signed on January, 2016, and will run for ten years.
According to Audit Scotland, ONE played a key role in developing the regional economic strategy and the deal, and remains heavily involved in its delivery. Other City Region Deals are tri-partite agreements between Westminster, Holyrood and Local Authorities. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are unique in having a local businessman and his associates as decision makers on how public money is spent. A description of the perceived benefits of ONE’s involvement, as seen by the City and Shire Councils, appears as Case Study 2 in the Audit Scotland Report.
• The presence of a strong and influential business leader, who can tap into a wide network of contacts
• The ability to cut through political obstacles
• It introduced both councils to new ways of working in partnership to deliver at pace
• It provided expertise in developing business cases in partnership with Scottish Enterprise
• Committed development funding, matched by Scottish Enterprise, to leverage resources for the development of the business cases.
Audit Scotland has major reservations about how City Region deals are being implemented. It has concerns over their effectiveness, lack of transparency, and lack of accountability. The method for selecting which projects will be funded is described as “unclear”. Local communities are not being involved in the decision-making process.
The Aberdeen City Region Deal is called “Powering Tomorrow’s World”. It is biased towards the recommendation made by Sir Ian Wood that the UK should “maximise economic recovery” of North Sea Oil and Gas assets. 72% went on the Oil and Gas Technology Centre. 12% is going on Life Sciences, Food Drink and Agriculture. 6.5% is going to investments in digital, and a transport appraisal. 7.3% is going to support the extension of Aberdeen Harbour, where 65 – 75% of its income comes from Oil and Gas. 1.4% is going on transport infrastructure. A whopping 72% of the City Region Deal money is going to support a sunset industry. This was signed up to a year after the Paris Agreement. Given Sir Ian Wood’s commercial interests in the oil and gas industry (these include fracking in the US), it’s reasonable to conclude that self-interest plays a part in his role in the City Region Deal. It’s also reasonable to conclude that it is Sir Ian Wood’s influence with the Council via the City Region Deal, coupled with the threat to his profits posed by the Paris Agreement that is driving the bid to industrialise the green belt. Plan A was to sacrifice future generations via climate change for short term profits, plan B seems to be sacrifice the people of Torry for short term profits.
Councillors from the City and the Shire who have been appointed directors of ONE have been granted a specific dispensation by the Standards Commission under the Councillors’ Code of Conduct. They don’t have to remove themselves from the debate or the vote when matters concerning ONE or any discussion on the projects or funding of the City Region Deal come before the Council. Douglas Lumsden is currently both Conservative co-leader of Aberdeen City Council, and a board member of ONE. Other members of ONE are representatives from Aberdeen Harbour Board and Scottish Enterprise. The public has no voice, and is simply presented with fait accompli. No-one voted for Sir Ian Wood.
When control of a city rests with a small group of people, that city has ceased to be a democracy. Has the city of Aberdeen become an oligarchy? Is there no-one to hold the powerful to account?
I’ll finish with a cautionary tale. The “Energy Park” theme as a vehicle for “levering” public money is not a new concept. Sir Ian’s ONE evolved from a previous business interest group, ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum) and has many of the same members. This organisation was funded by Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Councils and Scottish Enterprise, and had the same aims as ONE. 10 of the 16 board members were the local business elite, and two councillors represented the electorate. https://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/11/stewart-milne-and-acsef-watch-aberdeen/
The Renewable Energy Park they planned for the “Energetica Corridor” came to nought. On 18th October, 2017, the P&J headline read “Renewables Trade Park Thrown to the Wind”. Scottish Enterprise had used public money to buy a 55 ha site and spent £2 million on putting in a road. The site is now being opened up to any industrial enterprise that wants it, but it appears no-one does. Scottish Enterprise claimed that there was a lack of demand in the renewables industry.
Yet here we are again. The same speculative, environmentally damaging scheme is being promoted once more, using the same green-wash.