The new chair of Scottish Water has shares in Shell and is a former oil lobbyist, prompting questions about her environmental credentials as the body faces scrutiny over its handling of sewage pollution.
Deirdre Michie will become the chair of Scottish Water’s board on 1 January 2024. She will remain in the post until 2028 and earn over £105,000 a year for two and a half days of work each week at Scottish Water.
Michie was the chief executive of North Sea oil trade body, Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) – formerly known as Oil and Gas UK – for eight years until she stepped down in 2022. Prior to that, she worked in “senior leadership roles” at Shell, including in its public relations department.
Michie was already a member of the publicly owned water company’s board, and Scottish Water’s register of interests shows she still holds shares in Shell. The Ferret revealed in May 2023 that a 16,000 litre oil spill by Shell in Nigeria polluted drinking water, contaminated farmland and killed hundreds of birds.
One environmental campaigner claimed Michie had “moved over from defending climate polluters to chairing Scotland’s largest water polluter”. They claimed that Michie “spent her time with the fossil fuel industry peddling false solutions” in order to “delay real action on climate change”.
The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alex Cole-Hamilton, told The Ferret that Scotland’s environment needs a Scottish Water chair “who is genuinely passionate about cleaning up our rivers and beaches, not public relations campaigns”.
But Scottish Water said its board requires a chair with “skills found in large, complex and vitally important business organisations”. It pointed out that she was appointed by the Scottish Government “following an open and transparent process”.
Michie has argued against the UK Government’s windfall tax on oil and gas producers during the energy crisis, claimed drilling new oil in the North Sea would help reduce climate emissions, and defended Shell and BP’s records on climate change.
As part of our award-winning Who Runs Scotland? series, published in 2021, The Ferret named Michie as one of the top 10 most influential people in Scotland. We found that she was a key figure representing the oil and gas industry with regular access to Scottish ministers.
Michie is one of three Scottish Water board members with links to Shell. Non-executive directors Ken Marnoch and Catriona Schmolke also have shares in the company.
Marnoch is also a vice president at Shell’s internal audit department, while Schmolke also has an investment in BP.
Meanwhile, the body’s current chair – Dame Susan Rice, who we also listed amongst Scotland’s 10 most influential people in 2021 – has shares in SSE, which runs Scotland’s most polluting power station at Peterhead.
Scottish Water has been criticised for low levels of sewage monitoring in Scotland and The Ferret revealed in September that more than half of designated bathing spots across the country had been polluted by sewage at least once during the summer of 2023.
In October our analysis also found that sewage had been discharged during dry weather – when the sewer system is not usually stressed – on 2,300 occasions in the past five years.
Dixon added: “She spent her time with the fossil fuel industry peddling false solutions as part of a strategy to delay real action on climate change for as long as possible. She doesn’t seem like the right person to be chairing Scottish Water, with its continuing uphill struggle to reduce its own pollution.”
Dixon argued that Scottish Water had made “serious attempts” to reduce its own climate emissions. Its infrastructure has a considerable carbon footprint which it claims to have cut by 250,000 tonnes since the mid-2000s.
“It would be a tragedy if Michie’s continuing interests in Shell and her past defence of the fossil fuel industry reduced the speed of Scottish Water’s drive to decarbonise,” Dixon claimed.
Alex Cole-Hamilton said Scottish Water has “huge questions to answer” on sewage pollution.
“There were at least 14,000 sewage spills last year alone and probably many more because only a small fraction of outlets are monitored, yet the organisation’s response has been abject,” he said.
“I don’t want to cast judgement on Deirdre Michie before she has even got her feet under the desk but there is a huge task ahead of her to ensure Scottish Water increases monitoring and drives down sewage spills,” he continued.
“Our environment needs someone who is genuinely passionate about cleaning up our rivers and beaches, not public relations campaigns or defending outdated standards.”
Scottish Labour MSP, Mercedes Villalba, said she found it “deeply concerning” that the chair role “has been given to somebody who holds shares in Shell”.
“As a leader and business executive in the global energy industry, the new appointee has significant experience at the top end of an industry which is unarguably driven by profit,” Villalba said.
“But access to safe, clean water is a human right and Scottish Water must be run with that fundamental principle. I question whether the candidate will be able to set aside their focus on profits, to provide an essential public service.”
A Scottish Water spokesperson said: “The appointment of Deirdre Michie as the next Scottish Water chair was made by the Scottish Government, following an open and transparent process.
“The board provides strategic guidance, direction and corporate governance to Scottish Water – a public body and the fourth biggest water and wastewater utility in the UK – oversees the delivery of Scottish Water’s regulatory commitments and ensures statutory requirements in relation to public funds are complied with.
“The board requires a chair with the experience and skills found in large, complex and vitally important business organisations. The chair, along with other board members, brings experience and independent judgement on issues of strategy and performance vital to the success of Scottish Water.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/Andrei310