Saturday, 26 March 2016

Walk Cycle Vote Scotland

Last year, while standing for Westminster elections, I recieved many emails asking my views on a wide range of matters.  I posted as many of my replies as I old on my blog, so my views would be a matter of public record.

Here is my first reply for the Scottish campaign for 2016.

Thank you for your email on walking and cycling.

I have a confession to make.  I don't use my bicycle as much as I should.  In my last job, I regularly commuted to work on my bike as the road exposure was less than a kilometre in length.

Having previously lived in Norway, spent a lot of time in Germany and worked frequently in the Netherlands and Denmark, I know what cycle lanes ought to be like.   They are not like British cycle provision.  A painted line on the road is, to me at least, not a cycle lane.  Once on Edinburgh's existing cycle network, they are usually great.  Getting safely on to them is sometimes a challenge.

Liberal Democrats recognise this and that is why during the Coalition government, we invested £115 million to improve cycling conditions in cities across the UK. 

There are many opportunities to extend cycle lane provision in my own constituency of Edinburgh Northern and Leith.  Lower Granton Road, currently a bottleneck for traffic when cyclists are on the road, has currently only partial provision for both walkers and cyclists.  Given the funding, the existing decent cycle lane could be extended another 400m, giving relief to cyclists, motorists and allow walkers to distance themselves from traffic fumes.

I would work hard to see proper cycle provision on Leith Walk: one of the UK's most dangerous roads for cyclists.

Edinburgh is a great city for walking but I think we can do better.  We need a proper and connected walking route laid out along the north coast as part of the John Muir Way.  At the moment the path, which is well-supported in the Lothians, seems to disappear in Edinburgh.  It actually runs through the city centre. Instead, it should continue along the coast, providing local people with a superb walk, encouraging Eco-tourism and providing small businesses from Leith to Silverknowles with additional opportunities.  

Thus I am delighted to be able to support the laudable ambitions of WalkCycle campaign.

Sally, I hope members of your groups will share my vision for improving walking and cycling facilities, not just in Edinburgh but across Scotland.   If they do, please support me in Edinburgh Northern and Leith and, in view of our previous delivery on cycling, give both votes to Liberal Democrats across Scotland

If you or your members would like to follow up with their own observations and questions, I will be delighted to discuss matters further.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Edinburgh Northern and Leith
Scottish Liberal Democrats

Monday, 14 March 2016

The £12 million Oil and Gas Fund

As you may know, I find myself somewhat unbusy as far paid employment in the oil and gas sector is concerned.

What I thought I would do therefore is, after the announcement by Nicola Sturgeon on the 1st of February about the Scottish Government's £12 million fund to help unbusy people like me become busy, is that I would contact the Scottish Government and see how one can get a slice of the funding pie.

What I was hoping was, upon proving that I am who I said I am and my circumstances (being made redundant from the oil business) are true, that I would get agreement to maybe fund a project manager course or, even better, a masters degree.

First of all I contacted the Scottish Government's Energy Directive, asking whom to contact.  Eventually I was given the details for Oil and Gas Skills and its director Mike Duncan.

Perseverance is important.  With both organisations, my initial emails went unanswered.  Only on the second attempt did I receive any reply.  Finally I got a call from Mr Duncan and I went through my personal circumstances.

The bottom line is this.  All funding has to have a guaranteed job at the end of the process so, if you like me were hoping to change career direction by retraining upon your own initiative and then looking for work, the Scottish Government is not going to help.  If, on the other hand, somebody has an employer saying that they love to employ you but can't because you don't have the necessary qualification in, say, widget-tightening, then the Oil and Gas Fund can contribute to funding the widget-tightening course.  It may even cover the entire cost if the amount is not large.

In other words, the scheme is really for employers who may be looking to hire people who previously worked in the oil and gas sector but need help with the cost of retraining.

If you think you can benefit, or your company is looking to hire ex-oil workers and need additional training finance, then drop an email either to Oil and Gas Skills oil& or to Mike Duncan directly

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Speech to Scottish Energy Association, March 10th 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen.  Thank you for inviting me to speak today. 
My name is Martin Veart.  I am standing on behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Constituency of Edinburgh Northern and Leith.  Currently I am working with ICOE Research on their upcoming publication Offshore Oil & Gas Operations: Environment, Health and Safety.  Prior to this, I have more than 20 years experience in offshore oil and gas.

Scotland needs a government which will invest in 21st Century infrastructure.  Infrastructure that helps us beat our climate change targets, creates warmer homes, reduces air pollution and strengthens our economy.

For Liberal Democrats, this literally begins at home.  At our recent conference we addressed the issue of fuel poverty.  Both in rural areas of Scotland and in much of the existing housing stock in our cities, there is too much of the nation’s homes that is still poorly insulated, resulting in fuel poverty for many.  We will reduce this through better planning for district heating and renewable energy technology in new social housing, as well as improving the energy efficiency of existing homes, as part of a national infrastructure project.

Renewables are the key to Scotland’s energy future and reducing global greenhouse emissions are a key part of the planet’s future.  

While in government, Liberal Democrats have so often set the pace on renewables and low-carbon technologies. 
In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, we established the first ever renewable electricity targets, setting the groundwork for green investment and jobs.
It was Liberal Democrats in the UK Government who established the Green Investment Bank, based in Edinburgh, paving the way for Carbon Capture and Storage and established the Green Deal.
After the breakthrough climate change talks in Paris, the renewables sector should be thriving.  It should be set for unprecedented levels of support from government.  We should be seeing new action from both the Westminster and  Scotland’s governments. 
Instead, the UK Government has cut off the renewable sector at the knees; driven by ideological attachment to the free market and in pursuit of short-sighted, short-term savings.

Since last summer, the Tories have cut the DECC budget by 22%.
They scrapped the £1 billion groundbreaking Carbon Capture project planned for Peterhead and gone are the associated scientific and innovation benefits. 
Scrapped too is the Green Deal.
The Tories have cut £130 million from the solar and wind budget, with the result of thousands of job losses.  Even worse, there has been a massive blow to investor confidence, job creation, energy security and our nation’s low-carbon ambitions.
And we have a Scottish Government that, days after Paris, cut the climate change budget by £50 million, including £40 million from the green energy budget.  That is 10% and once again we see the SNP talk about investment while following Conservative cuts.

So what would we do?

Liberal Democrats are committed to having 100% of Scotland’s electrical energy generated from renewable sources.   While part of the UK government, we ensured an average investment in the sector of £7 billion per year: nearly as much as the oil companies were annually investing in the North Sea during the same period.  No other party can match that record.

Liberal Democrats also understands that reliance upon renewables makes difficulties for major energy suppliers to plan and invest during the transition period to renewable energy.  That is why we appreciate the need for ceiling and floor tariffs, governed by Offgem, so that energy operators have secure boundaries within which to plan and invest.

Another avenue Liberal Democrats are keen to explore is renewable heating.  Currently only 2% of UK heating demand are met by low-carbon sources.  In Scotland the figure for renewable heating is slightly higher: 3%.  Our nation's target by 2030 is 40% so have a long way to go on this. 

This morning, I looked at the UK electric generation and the percentage breakdowns are this:

Coal: 16.5     Nuclear: 17.6             CCGT       46.6
Wind 6.0       Hydro  0.4                 Biomass 5.0               Via Interconnect: 8.0

This shows that while politicians talk about renewables, what we have to cope with at this time is a very different mix.

I’ll take nuclear first.  It does not look what is happening at Hinkley-C will act as any form of model to encourage further investment from the private sector.   The original Conservative government pledge was to have 16 such power stations operational by 2030.  That is not going to happen, but I believe there is the political will to go ahead with Hinkley-C, regardless of cost.  One just hopes EDF, having being awarded the contract, can survive its good fortune.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Liberal Democrats, supports the recent announcement to keep Torness open, purely upon a pragmatic basis.  He goes on to point out that with the SNP firmly opposed to nuclear and the Conservatives wrecking the renewables budget, an impasse has been reached.   The two governments need a joint plan but they are showing no signs of developing one.

 Offshore oil and gas is currently in a terrible state owing to the oil price crash.  Job losses are probably over 100,000 if one takes total UK jobs into account.  The price of Brent crude has just managed to bounce up the $40 per barrel this week but still, this is not high enough to support the industry in the long term.  Investment in the offshore sector has plunged from an average of £8 billion per annum to less than £1 billion for 2016. 
This was the picture just two years ago, prior to the Scottish referendum. 
I put this up as a warning against politicians, like me, who may stand in front of you and claim to have a crystal ball in which the future is golden.  Sometimes it isn’t.
But of the two competing claims up there, which one would you have considered the more reasonable?  I know, hindsight is a wonderful thing.  Few people saw this particular oil-price crash coming. 
But out of the two claims, I went with the OBR and here’s why:

As you can see, this is the annual UK oil and gas production for the past twenty years.   The trend is only in one direction.  Even when the oil price peaked at over $140 a barrel during 2010, the fall in production figures could not be reversed.  In 2015 there is a welcome rise in production of 9.7%: this is what some in the SNP call “an oil boom” but this graph puts things into their proper perspective.

The reality is that production levels, when compared to their peak in late 1990s, both gas and oil have fallen by over 70%. 

The futures oil price for December 2018 is still not expected to break $50 dollars a barrel.   Despite the drastic cost cutting which is still underway by the North Sea operators, the industry has a very uncertain future. 
Liberal Democrats support the current round of tax equalisation measures to bring the offshore oil and gas taxation regimes more in line with other business sectors.  We also support companies’ access to data sources, as laid out in the OGA Corporate Plan published yesterday. 

That leaves us in Scotland and the rest of the UK with hard choices to make.  We are still far from having an infrastructure that can do without oil and gas.  Even with best efforts, it will take more than twenty years wean the Scottish economy off fossil fuels. 

 So, what is to be done?  Import or frack?

As you may have heard, we in the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been recently discussing this matter.  I was talking to Willie Rennie over the weekend and we can agree that as Liberal Democrats we respect each other’s position and both sides share the desire to see CO2 emissions drop as quickly as possible.  The debate is ongoing and I am sure you will have questions after.
This is an energy comparison between fossil fuel types and taking into account their sources.  

As one can instantly see, in terms of CO2 release, coal has to go and it is right that it is being phased out.
Shale gas actually compares quite favourably with gas either imported by pipeline from outside the EU, or by tanker in the form of LNG.  This is one of the factors why I am personally in favour of fracking.

Ultimately the decision should be with the public and local government during the planning stage.  I believe companies should have the right to put the case for fracking, within a tight regulatory framework and with independent assessment of the evidence.

In summary: the Liberal Democrats have an excellent track record of being a practical and progressive partner, whether in providing people with warmer homes, seeking new opportunities for industry, or with coalition partners in striving towards a better Scotland.  When Liberal Democrats are in government, people know they will receive a fair and considered hearing.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Libdems and Fracking

The article below first appeared in Libdem Voice, 5th March 2016, in a slightly shorter format.

It seems that there is widespread misunderstanding among the federal party members as to why we here in Scotland decided to end the current moratorium we had on fracking and other non-conventional extraction of hydrocarbons.

Introduced in 2013, the Scottish moratorium on fracking was, as far as one understands it, based upon awaiting further evidence.  The following year, such evidence actually came to light in the form of the Scottish Government's 2014 report: Independent Expert Scientific Panel - Unconventional Oil and Gas.
The report is comprehensive: addressing as it does both the environmental and public concerns.  It comes to the conclusion that, with proper oversight, public consultation and tight planning restrictions, that it is possible to exploit the United Kingdom's potential for future hydrocarbon exploitation.

It was upon the basis of this report that Ewan Hoyle of Glasgow put forward his amendment to end the moratorium on fracking.  At conference, I spoke in support of the amendment on the current state of the industry.  With the oil price currently around $36 a barrel, the North Sea offshore industry has already shed over 70,000 jobs, with the associated knock-on effects throughout the economy.

Ewan also outlined the costs of importing oil and gas abroad, outlining the additional carbon cost of shipping.  I would like to expand upon this point.

The graph comes from the report Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, published in 2013.  It shows that shale gas compares favourably with both non-EU gas imported by pipeline and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) which is the method of importation by tanker.

As an aside, I recently read Norman Baker's biography Against The Grain.  While in government he came forward with the idea of comparing the different forms of oil, gas and coal imports according to their CO2 signatures.  This would have been an extremely good way of helping non-experts (pretty much all of us) when it comes to question whether to import or produce hydrocarbons at home.  Naturally his idea was not accepted by our partners in Coalition

As Liberal Democrats, we can be united in wanting to see the end of global dependency on fossil fuels.  The fact that the UK will still be dependent upon them for the next fifteen to twenty five years has to be addressed.  The issues are not simple.

I want to add to this the issue of not just CO2, which is of course vital, but also that of safety.  To my mind, environmental concerns are global.  This was brought home to me in the mid 1990s by none other that the ecologist and botanist Dr. David Bellamy.   After he gave a talk, I asked him what he thought of the North Sea oil industry.  His answer surprised me.  David Bellamy regarded the North Sea has having the best and highest safety regulations and record in the world.  He said that one had to be very careful in campaigning against oil and gas extraction and gave the example of Conoco in Central America.  Conoco had obtained licences to drill in part of this nation's rainforest and had prepared careful plans to do so with the minimum of ecological impact.  The green campaigners in the USA strongly objected and launched a huge campaign to stop Conoco drilling in the rainforest.  The Greens won: Conoco decided that the adverse publicity was not worth it and withdrew.  Big celebrations among environmentalists.
That still left a poor nation with an unhappy government determined to do its best.  What happened after Conoco pulled out was the government granted licences to some two-bit drilling outfit who didn't give a damn either about its public image and even less about the environment.  The new operators trashed the place.

Since then, I have been working in the oil industry, very much at the sharp end and all over the world.  I found Dr. Bellamy to be correct: the North Sea basin (United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands) is collectively the best, the safest, the cleanest and most regulated oil and gas basin in the world.  Outside Northern Europe, the industry is patchy.  Some of the oil majors do manage to uphold high standards throughout their global operations.  Others say they do, while if the crunch comes and an incident reported, the move is not to investigate but to cover up.
This ought to show that if we in the UK do not use our own expertise, under our own regulations, to the standards applied to the offshore industry, but yet continue to import oil and gas from other parts of the world, we don't really care about the environment.  What we don't know may not upset us but we will be doing nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, accidents and pollution elsewhere.

So it saddens me that we have an email Willie Rennie saying that the policy committee has decided to oppose fracking on the grounds of climate change.  As I have outlined above, this would be factually incorrect and smacks more of popularism than policy.  This drive is from top-down and does not reflect either conference decision nor understanding of the issues.

In campaigning, messages have to be simplified.  What should never, ever happen is that the message dictates the policy.  I get that fracking is not popular but for us to examine the evidence and then campaign against what the evidence says is frankly perverse.  That is one bandwagon that the Liberal Democrats should never jump on.  To do so may lead to some short term success but it will inevitably lead us being hollowed out morally as a party.  The last thing we need to adopt is an opportunistic culture.  Liberal Democrats need to be evidence-based.

Winning is important but if the leadership starts reversing conference decisions because they are politically inconvenient, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of party are we becoming?