The Cambo Oilfield Pull-out: Winning the Battle, but Not the War

Last week, Royal Dutch Shell yielded to pressure from environmental groups and pulled out of its plans to develop the Cambo oil field, a few hundred kilometers north of the Scottish mainland. For those in favour of greener energy options, this has been hailed as a victory; for the oil industry and the UK government backing it, it is an annoyance that could present a serious hurdle to development.

The official line from Shell is that the project was not economically viable and thus was not a realistic option for the oil giant. However, it is very likely that mounting pressure from environmental groups and the public meant that the company risk-assessed not the economic benefits, but the potential damage to its reputation should it go forward with its plans for Cambo – in doing so, deciding that, in the end, the costs outweighed the benefits. While this is surely a win for environmentalists, the public, and the planet at large, it is not the end of the road – neither in the fight for climate justice nor necessarily in the prevention of development at Cambo. The majority shareholder of the project, Aberdeen-based Siccar Point Energy, has vowed to continue talks with the British government to evaluate options.

Damage to the Environment

The designated area for development has been estimated to hold up to 800 million barrels of oil, making it one of the largest such areas in the North Sea region. Extraction of such a vast quantity of resources could, research suggests, produce the equivalent of 18 years’ coal power plant emissions – and that’s only the first phase out of two planned for the project. The continuation and expansion of development in the second phase is predicted by Friends of the Earth to “be ten times the annual emissions of Scotland”. In the wake of COP26, and with the pledges that both the Scottish and Westminster governments have made to help tackle the climate crisis, giving the go-ahead for Cambo would expose a hollowness and halfheartedness in the leadership that would surely expel any hopes for climate justice in the UK. Particularly discouraging would be the Scottish Green’s, at worst, involvement in, or, at best, inaction towards the continuation of plans for the oilfield now that they have positions in government.

Jobs and the economy

Yet, there are those who would argue that the Cambo project would be a good thing for the climate, actually. The main argument posited is that the revenue and jobs the oil would provide could help to support the country’s transition to greener energy. Moreover, it is argued that an increase in reserves is required to support energy demands across the UK. However, the UK is currently in possession of 5.7 billion barrels of oil, enough to sustain a transition without new exploration according to Friends of the Earth. Malcolm Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens, echoed this sentiment in response to Shell’s withdrawal, “It's absurd to suggest that our transition to a zero-carbon economy depends on drilling for ever more oil and gas,” and went on to argue that Scotland’s renewable sector should be the primary energy export. As a riposte to concerns regarding jobs, Friends of the Earth again highlighted only around 150 are to be created by the development, which stands in stark contrast to the ‘thousands’ promised by Shell and Siccar Point.

The UK government has promised to create up to two million jobs in the green energy sector as part of its climate commitments. While this is certainly promising and presents a potentially prosperous alternative for many currently in the oil and gas trade, recent statistics have shown an overall decrease in the number of jobs available in the sector (when compared with 2014). If the British government is serious about meeting its goals, then it needs to improve green infrastructure and encourage growth in the sector through increased investment. A better strategy would be to support the retraining of the thousands across the UK and Scotland who rely on fossil fuel industries so that they can apply their trade in the green sector - that’s instead of investing in an ecologically-damaging, short-term cash cow. In doing so, the UK would be several steps closer to achieving its environmental goals, all the while maintaining economic output.


So, while the announced pull-out of Shell is certainly worthy of celebration, it is but one small step towards a greener future for Scotland and the UK. Furthermore, if either country truly wants to meet its climate pledges – and doing so, perhaps save countless lives, prevent the destruction of biomes, and generally mitigate worldwide disaster – then its politicians need to stop sitting on the fence on issues that could end up tipping the scales towards calamity. On a lighter note, let Cambo and its protestors be an example of how a unified, public voice can lead to change and force the Powers-That-Be to listen to, and heed, the concerns of the many.


Fergus Hallwood