ON Tuesday, last week Business for Scotland published a research briefing called “The Resource Governance and Taxation Generation Track Record of the UK Government in UK’s oil and gas sector”. A significant piece of work and merited more publicity than simply putting it on the BfS site, so we alerted the Sunday Herald to the outcomes of the research and they ran it as the front-page splash.
We were comparing the performance of the UK Government to Norway in terms of managing oil and gas revenues. We found that the UK Government had underperformed Norway by a considerable margin. Norway generated £381 billion more than the UK Government in tax revenue from their North Sea operations between 1964 to 2016 — while producing 4.7 per cent less oil and gas. In the two years since the oil price dropped, Norway generated more than £29bn in oil and gas revenues, while the UK Government are predicted to lose £23 million in the same period.
Given the GERS report on Wednesday confirmed 2015/16 oil revenues were £222m, that means they are predicting a loss of £245m in the next set of GERS. The reason that an entire industry which is increasing production can generate a tax loss for the Government is because the UK Government over the last two years since the oil price dropped, gave Shell £179m in tax rebates, while Shell for example paid the Norwegian Government £4.589bn. UK taxpayers also gave BP £342m in tax rebates in the two years since the oil price dropped – making the UK the only country out of the 23 countries where BP operates where they received money rather than paid taxes.
The UK tax rebates were not specifically linked to any commitment to save jobs, and the UK sector seems to have shed significantly more jobs (120,000 since 2014) than the now much larger Norwegian sector (47,000 since 2013). So it’s fairly clear the UK Government has underperformed against Norway in terms of managing resources – Norway without the so-called broad shoulders of the UK has a far more successful North Sea governance regime in place.
The response to this research was polemic and often childish and the arguments used to attack the findings were poorly researched and mostly completely wrong. It’s clear there is a double standard at play in the independence debate. Unionists can say anything they want, provide no evidence, leave vital facts out of their arguments, have zero track record in economics or research and their opinion is treated as wisdom from on high. However, if an independence supporter brings forward irrefutable evidence that the UK Government isn’t working in Scotland’s interests, then it receives bile, rants and raves.
The funny thing is the research isn’t actually controversial or dangerously radical. For example, Guardian economics editor Larry Elliot’s articles include “Norway’s $885bn-nil advantage in Britain’s sea of social troubles”, and “Britain has squandered golden opportunity North Sea oil promised” which he concludes with the words “An entire era can be summed up in three words: discovered, extracted, squandered”. Or Denis Healy (the former Labour Chancellor), who told Holyrood magazine in 2013: “I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism” and “I think they [Westminster politicians] are concerned about Scotland taking the oil, I think they are worried stiff about it”.
Then there is the quote from a dangerous nationalist radical that gave me the idea for the comparison in the first place. David Cameron on the Andrew Marr show was asked “why Norway was doing much better than the UK?”. He replied: “Norway have as much oil as we do, and only four million people, not 60 million, so that makes all the difference.” So in truth my research conclusions match the mainstream belief, and everyone who genuinely investigates fully agrees with it.
A couple of actual counter claims were made. Let’s look at those.
Some say we can’t compare Norway’s revenues as the cost of production is so much lower in Norway. In 2015/16 when those figures were generated the UK sector hadn’t yet completed its massive cost cutting exercise (including 120k in redundancies). The closing down of the older more costly marginal fields was just getting started and the new mega fields coming online are now lowering the cost per barrel, as production flow rises. In our briefing we pointed out that estimates of the reduction in average production costs in the UK sector suggest a figure of around 45 per cent since the drop in the oil price. BP reports some of their North Sea oil fields are operating at $12.00 a barrel and that is profitable at today’s $52.72 price.
Another criticism is that the UK oil sector is on its knees and Norway’s is thriving, so we need tax cuts here. The whole point of our report is that Norway’s sector is thriving and as ours has been so badly stewarded that it it’s on its knees – so they agree with us? Related to that was the claim that corporations are taxed on profits and they are not making profits. The problem here is that Shell, having received £179m in tax rebates from the UK Government in 2016 and also had its Petroleum Revenue Tax cut to zero, went on to declare the world’s largest shareholder profit dividend that year.
Now in 2017, Shell has declared a £22,254m profit jump from quarter one in 2016 to quarter one in 2017. So we have self-confessed socialists arguing that highly profitable mega corporations should be given huge tax breaks in a time of austerity – you couldn’t make it up. Note that smaller Scottish-owned oil supply companies who struggled because of the price fall get nothing from the UK Government even though some have seen their turnover half or worse.
Another source of derision was that the SNP supported the tax cuts. Yup, they did, and after decades of mismanagement of the North Sea maybe they had to play the ball where it lay. However, BfS doesn’t agree with the SNP on many issues and we state quite clearly that it’s time to start taxing the oil companies again, even phase it in if you have to – the only argument against this is that the North Sea revenues line in GERS would expand dramatically and they don’t want that.