Paradigm shift in the House of the North – reflecting on ‘The Sky’s Limit’

15 Nov 2016 james



I’m trudging towards the top of Am Faochagach following my dear friend Greg Muttitt, who was for a long time central to Platform and is now part of the wider family. The smooth crest of this mountain rises like a whale’s back. Its lack of crags must have led to its name – Am Faochagach, ‘the place of the heather’. This peak forms part of the ridge in northwest Scotland that is the watershed between The Minch and the North Sea. From the height of 3,000 feet I can see in one direction the Isle of Lewis and in the other the Moray Firth. To the east the view is picked out with wind turbines, the sudden novelty of the white turning blades at Lochhluichart, Meall an Turic, Beinn Tharsuinn, and Bedeallt windfarms. Beyond them is the sea, dotted with oil production platforms. I cannot see them but I know their flares are roaring in the late afternoon.

The water from this summit flows into Loch Glascarnoch that we passed several hours ago as we began our ascent. This reservoir is part of a massive hydro-electric scheme built in the 1950s. From it the water rushes via a pipeline running five miles under the mountain of Meall nan Caorach before it turns the turbines at Mossford power station. Here is a renewable energy scheme, built by the state and successfully operating for nearly sixty years. (The state-owned North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board was privatised in 1989 and this ‘asset’ now belongs to Scottish & Southern plc) The loch has melded into the landscape so completely that most people who drive along the A835, which runs along the southern shore of Glascarnoch, must believe that this is an entirely ‘natural’ feature of the Highlands. How long before the masts and blades of the wind farms become similarly ‘invisible’?

Constructing the Loch Glascarnoch hydro electric power scheme 1956
Constructing the Loch Glascarnoch hydro electric power scheme 1956

As we’ve climbed we’ve discussed ‘The Sky’s Limit: why the Paris climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production’, the report researched and written by Greg as part of Oil Change International and published only a few days earlier. The demands of the report are startling and the implications profund. In order to meet the objective of the Paris Climate talks to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees C, it recommends:

‘No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and that governments should grant no more permits.’

‘Some fields and mines should be closed before fully exploiting their reserves’

‘Governments should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it’

In many quarters the findings of ‘The Sky’s Limit’ have been lauded. As Bill McKibben wrote in the New Republic:

If we’re serious about preventing catastrophic warming, the new study shows, we can’t dig any new coal mines, drill any new fields, build any more pipelines. Not a single one. We’re done expanding the fossil fuel frontier.’

On the one hand the demands of the ‘The Sky’s Limits’ are simply an affirmation of position that has become common sense to many. Those who form the heart of the climate movement have held these views for some time. Back in the early 1990s Platform was part of a loose coalition of activists gathered around the title ‘No New Oil’. The grouping did not last long but its understandings, that there should be no further oil & gas fields opened up, became givens for initiatives such as Art Not Oil and Platform’s Carbon Web project. Now Oil Change has brilliantly expressed these understandings in the cold analytical data of a report that is aimed at the desks of government ministers and civil servants. (Already a coalition, including Platform, has used the report to argue against the UK governments oil concession licensing round in the waters off Scotland and England and Oil Change is hosting events around ‘The Sky’s Limit’ at the Climate conference in Morroco.) Over the course of fifteen years a new common sense has grown with an ever greater momentum.

However, to many ‘The Sky’s Limit’ seems an insanely bold proposition. Perhaps the relative silence of public critics is simply because many feel it is too far beyond the realms of possible to merit criticism? Those that ascribe to this opinion proclaim that these proposals, as with the ‘Keep it in the Ground’ demand, are simply calling for all the lights to go out and are an offence against those in the Global South who are starved of sufficient energy. The CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, expressed this opinion at the Shell AGM in May:

“We believe that the population of the world will grow and that with it so will the demand for energy and that includes oil and gas. There are calls for us to ‘leave it in the ground’, but this will mean rationing energy and it’s not for industry to decide who should be allowed to fly and who should not.”

It seems invariably that the discussion of whether proposals such as those in ‘The Sky’s Limit’ are or are not ‘realistic’ takes place in the abstract realm of global statistical analysis. But what do such demands mean when looked at through the example of a particular place? From the eagle’s eye vantage point of the mountain top, Greg and I try to discuss what the impact of the propositions would be here in Wester Ross, in the next decade.


In the townships scattered across this landscape there are surely precious few people who are currently employed, directly or indirectly, in the North Sea oil fields. Certainly many went from here in the heyday of the early 1970s. Men like Alan Bush from Scoraig and Jurgen Tomer from Badrallach who worked in the rig building yards at Nigg. But today the managed shut down of oil production in the North Sea would most likely have little impact on jobs in Wester Ross.

The UK Sector of the North Sea is on a slow and steady decline. Extraction is utterly dependent on the nature of the tax regime determined by the UK government in Westminster. Indeed since 2014 the British taxpayer has been subsidising private oil companies to continue producing in the North Sea. On this basis it would be relatively easy for Westminster to switch from subsidising oil & gas to subsidising offshore wind. A burgeoning wind industry, both offshore and onshore, could provide employment in the coming years just as the rig yards once did. Indeed from the mountain top we could see the pillars of more wind turbines being erected by the Dutch company Eneco at Lochhluichart, on the flanks of the mountain of Meall nan Caorach. We wonder how many of those involved in this construction live in Ullapool twenty miles away?

Next day as we labour up the grassy slopes of Meall a’ Chrasgaidh, ‘The Hill of the Crossing’, we talk again of the impacts of the propositions in the report. A sudden shift away from exploring new oil fields around in the world, we are warned by the likes of van Beurden, would reduce global supply and produce a sudden oil price rise. This would hit Wester Ross at the pumps, increasing petrol and diesel prices. It would mean a reduction in the number of cars and dormobiles on the roads, squeeze the profits of the transport companies that freight fish away to European markets in freezer lorries, squeeze the profits of supermarkets such as Tescos with their superstore in Ullapool, make driving about the region more expensive, and most likely increase the price of food. But are these such great sacrifices over the long term? The widening of roads, the cheapness of fuel and the efficiency of car engines have been to the benefit of the likes of Tescos. But the same changes since the 1970s have meant that the network of local shops in smaller townships has been suffocated. Might they come to life again if folks found it too expensive to make a weekly 40 mile round trip to the shops?

But Greg explains that the oil price can be kept relatively stable if for every million barrels of crude that is taken out of the supply side, an equivalent million barrels is taken out of the demand side. In terms of Wester Ross this means reducing the demand in petrol through the electrification of essential transport services, of buses, refuse trucks, ambulances, police cars, and fire engines. If they were drawing their fuel from the turbines such as those at Lochhluichart, rather than the oil fields of Russia and The Gulf, would that be such a sacrifice? In addition if they were drawing electricity from wind farms owned and operated by the community, rather than a Dutch multinational like Eneco, this would help build Energy Democracy. This is precisely the demand of a rapidly growing social moment in Scotland – including the Scottish Green Party, Friends of the Earth and Our Power.


We descend the mountain. The wind blows down the pass in the shadow of the ‘Hill of the Crossing’. Certainly for Wester Ross the move to the situation in which there is near zero fossil fuel usage will be a paradigm shift. The combustion engine has relentlessly shaped this region for a century or so. And now on the Sunday evening of the first day of October there is a constant stream of cars, trucks and motor homes driving east on the A835, the majority are surely holidaymakers returning to the cities. For this stream to cease, or to dwindle to an electrified trickle, would alter the seasonal rhythms of the economy and society, which is now so dependent on tourism.

But this paradigm shift would not be ‘shutting down civilisation’ or ‘turning all the lights out’. It would be minute compared to the shifts that have happened in this place, in no way as profound as the arrival of furnaces to turn the forests into charcoal for iron smelting, as the arrival of sheep for the mutton export market, or the arrival the shotgun and the rifle to turn the mountains into pleasure grounds for industrial plutocrats.

And the shift is coming. As the platforms in the North Sea are decommissioned and the turbines are erected on the mountainsides, at least a version of the proposal in ‘The Sky’s Limit’ is slowly coming into being. Too slowly for sure, but it is coming. In spite of the news of the presidential elections in the USA, it is coming.

With thanks to Greg Muttitt

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