It is interesting to note that for a few minutes on Friday 19th September next year, Mary Pitcaithly, the Chief Executive of Falkirk Council, will literally hold the fate of Scotland in her hands. Mary Pitcaithly is also the Chief Returning Officer for Scotland and on that fateful day, she will be handed a piece of paper on which will be written the final result of the referendum on independence. The numbers that she reads out will decide Scotland’s future, perhaps for centuries to come.
The announcement of the result on 19th September will come after years of campaigning, culminating in the actual referendum on Thursday 18th September. The polls will open at 07.00 hrs and close at 22.00 hrs, but during those 15 crucial hours it is reckoned that well over 3 million people will vote. Remember that Alex Salmond has decided to allow 16 and 17 year-olds vote for the first time ever. I believe this to be a major strategic error by the First Minister.
Last summer we had 80 - 16, 17 and 18 year olds from schools in Ayrshire visiting the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Myself, together with David Martin MEP from Labour and Ian Hudghton from the SNP, had to address them and inevitably we ended up having a debate about independence. At one point I said to them “All of you will have a vote next September in the referendum, so let’s have a show of hands on who is in favour of an independent Scotland.” Only three hands went up and there were even catcalls and whistles from some of the other pupils.
The amazing thing is, this is not unusual. I visit a lot of schools and I always get the same result….only a handful favour independence. The reason, I read somewhere, is because kids of that age use social network sites widely and, as such, are accustomed to networking with people their own age around the world, in the US, Europe, Australia and even China. They have global horizons.
They don’t think in terms of narrow nationalist borders like the SNP. So, if Alex Salmond thought it was a smart move to give hordes of young Bravehearts the vote, it may backfire horribly on the YES campaign.
Of course, this isn’t the only strategic error by our First Minister. He assured us that on Day One of independence Scotland would continue seamlessly as a member of the EU. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, we have now heard from the leading experts in Brussels, Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and Herman Van Rompuy – President of the European Council – that an independent Scotland in fact, under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, will have to apply to join the EU. Even Artur Mas – Alex Salmond’s great chum and opposite number in Catalonia, who intends holding his own referendum on independence in November this year, has admitted that if Catalonia votes to secede from Spain, they will automatically be forced to leave the EU and apply to re-join.
This is fairly fundamental to Scotland’s future and it’s astonishing that after years of claiming that they had taken legal advice on this issue Alex Salmond had to admit, finally that in fact they had never done so. What it means, in reality, is that if Scotland votes YES on 18th September, we will have to leave the EU and join the queue of countries like Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Turkey and others. I have no doubt, that with all our resources and the fact that Scotland has been a full member of the EU as part of the UK, for many years, we would have little difficulty in joining. But the fact remains that we would be subject to all the terms and conditions of membership laid down in the Lisbon Treaty, which means automatic membership of the borderless Schengen Area and mandatory membership of the Eurozone whenever our economy achieved convergence with the other Eurozone countries, which would be quite quickly.
The implications of these two facts are onerous. Firstly membership of Schengen means that we will have no option but to erect a border between ourselves and the rest of the UK that has an opt-out from Schengen. No further opt-outs will ever be allowed, so Scotland will have to build and police border controls with our biggest trading-partner, England.
Secondly, all this nonsense about keeping the Pound and having a Scottish member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee is quite simply a red herring. There will be no further opt-outs from the Eurozone allowed. An independent Scotland will have to join the Eurozone whether we like it or not and we will find ourselves in a currency union dictated from Frankfurt, rather than London, with the need to change currencies every time we jump on the train or Shuttle to London.
There is also a further aggravating factor about which the SNP have spread a lot of nonsense…the rebate. Nicola Sturgeon came to Brussels last year and told us that retaining Scotland’s share of the UK rebate was a red line for the SNP. Well I can tell you that she is completely wrong on this. No EU Member State will ever again be given a rebate. The other EU Member States hate Britain’s rebate, not least because they have to fund it themselves. I have spoken personally to George Osborne about this and he confirms that every time he goes to a Finance Ministers’ meeting in Brussels he has to fight in the trenches to retain the UK rebate. Scotland, as a new Member State, will certainly not be given any rebate and that means that EU membership will be more costly for every man, woman and child in Scotland than it is for our compatriots south of the border.
So I believe that Alastair Darling is quite correct when he says that the referendum will be decided on economic questions. The uncertainty over our role in the EU cannot be good for business. We have 165,000 people working in financial services in Scotland. They need to know if we will be in or out of the Eurozone if we vote for independence. We have tens of thousands of farmers in Scotland who rely on their single farm payments from Brussels to make ends meet. They need to know that their subsidies will continue during the two or three years that an independent Scotland is outside the EU and applying to join.
As some of you may know, I am also not a fan of Alex Salmnond’s plans to turn Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of renewables. OFGEM, the energy regulator, has warned that the UK’s current surplus generating capacity of 14% will sink to a wafer-thin 2% by 2015 as we continue to shut our old, coal-fired power stations to meet EU CO2 emission targets. A 2% surplus would place Britain on a knife-edge.
Any surge in energy consumption during a severe cold snap would plunge the country into blackouts. The reason for this catastrophic energy shortfall is not difficult to find; no new nuclear plants will be constructed, due to the refusal of the SNP government to give planning approval and the hysterical opposition from the Greens and their fellow-travellers who think the next Fukushima-style tsunami is about to hit the UK.
Instead, driven by the new renewables religion, our country is being blighted from top to toe with gigantic steel and concrete wind turbines. Already 6,000 have been installed across the UK at a cost of £8 billion, the same cost as a new, state-of-the-art, safe, third generation nuclear power plant; the only difference being that wind turbines will produce an unreliable and intermittent trickle of electricity for around 15 to 20 years, while a new nuclear plant will work at 90% efficiency, producing electricity day in and day out for the next 80 to 90 years.
If we are going to tackle the looming energy crisis then we must also exploit our massive reserves of shale gas, which would help us to reduce our dependency on expensive imported gas. With an estimated 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas deposits discovered in Lancashire alone, enough to power Britain for 65 years, we could be looking at the biggest energy find since North Sea oil in the Sixties. But it is typical of the feverish nature of the climate change debate in Britain that this massive find has been either entirely ignored or robustly attacked as anti-green.
Shale gas emits about half the CO2 that burning coal produces, which is why the US has managed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 450 million tonnes in the past five years, while EU greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, as we pursue the ludicrous and almost entirely useless strategy of building giant windmills. Carbon emissions in America per capita are now below the levels they were in 1963 and meanwhile gas is at almost give-away prices, kick-starting the US economy, boosting jobs and prosperity. Here, because of huge subsidies for wind turbines, which are passed straight down the line to the consumers, average electricity and gas bills have soared to over £1450, driving almost one million Scottish households into actual fuel poverty. Business and industry are reeling from spiralling fuel bills, hammering jobs.
In the UK, several areas have already been identified as having large potential shale gas reserves. Last year, exploratory drilling had to stop at a site in West Sussex, after a large protesters’ camp was erected nearby, causing a bigger nuisance than the drilling rig.
Meanwhile, an Australian company - Dart Energy, has been granted two licences to carry out exploratory drilling in Dumfriesshire, although work has not yet started. It has also identified two major shale gas fields at Airth, near Falkirk, although even its attempts to begin extracting coal-bed methane in the area has been robustly attacked by the Greens, despite the fact no fracking will be involved. The British Geological Survey suggests that UK offshore reserves of shale gas could be five to ten times the size of onshore, perhaps in excess of one thousand trillion cubic feet, which would put the UK in the top 20 countries with shale gas reserves worldwide.
Hydraulic Fracturing or fracking, involves pumping tens of thousands of litres of water mixed with salts, soap and citric acid, into deep wells under high pressure. The mixture causes rock formations to fracture and release stored gases. It is this process that has caused hysteria amongst the Greens who are determined to stop shale gas extraction in its tracks. Their ‘Frack Off’ bandwagon is now rolling out across the country. Incredibly, they argue that shale gas rigs will destroy our landscape, then in almost the same breath they support the construction of thousands of giant wind turbines, pylons, overhead lines, service roads, borrow pits and quarries in some of our most iconic and stunning countryside.
WWF Scotland said it has concerns around the process, including the contamination of water supplies by the "fracking" fluids and from gas leaking into water supplies, creating risks of explosions. But boreholes for shale gas extraction commonly are drilled down to 2000 metres or more underground, thousands of metres below the aquifer. The risk of water contamination is negligible. Similarly, the opponents of shale gas point to news reports of methane leaking through the water supply so that in some cases in America, people have actually been able to set fire to water coming from bathroom taps. However, this phenomenon was first observed in 1932, decades before shale gas was even thought of. It is a natural occurrence in certain parts of the USA, where methane gas has saturated the rock strata and entered the aquifer. This has nothing whatsoever to do with fracking, but provides nevertheless a convenient photo-opportunity for the ‘Frack Off’ brigade, who trot out film footage shot in Dakota 40 years ago as evidence of the dangers associated with shale gas exploitation.
Critics also claim that "fracking" caused a 1.5 Richter scale earthquake during exploratory drilling near Blackpool in 2011. But shale gas producers in America, like Royal Dutch Shell, claim that they know how to avoid and control these risks.
They say that so long as well-shafts are properly sealed with steel and concrete, there is a negligible risk that "fracking" will cause tiny earth tremors or contaminate groundwater.
So the shale-gas revolution has not only shamed the wind industry by showing how to cut carbon emission for real, but it has also blown away the last vestiges of credibility in the argument that says supplies of fossil fuels will soon disappear, leaving no alternative but renewables, no matter what the cost. Even if the price of oil remains above $100 a barrel, it looks like supplies of cheap and plentiful gas are here to stay for many decades to come….but only if we tell the Greens and their supporters to “Frack Off”!