Oil giants lobbied first minister Humza Yousaf to publicly endorse the North Sea industry and criticised the Scottish Government’s “damaging” stance on the sector at a private dinner, we can reveal. 

‘Special access’: Oil giants lobby Yousaf at private dinner

Oil giants lobbied first minister Humza Yousaf to publicly endorse the North Sea industry and criticised the Scottish Government’s “damaging” stance on the sector at a private dinner, we can reveal. 

Shell and BP representatives were among attendees at a lobbying dinner in Aberdeen on 7 September, held during an oil conference in the city. 

The dinner was hosted by the PR firm, True North, whose directors are an ex-SNP spin doctor and a former chief of staff to Alex Salmond. 

Diners warned Yousaf against a “disorderly exit” from oil and gas and claimed without the industry much of the energy supply chain in Scotland would disappear. They also expressed concerns that oil and gas was being “demonised”.

The first minister said it was “unfortunate” that the debate on oil and gas had become “polarised” and “toxic” and that he wanted to develop a “nuanced” position on the North Sea. Oil companies would have to “convince us” of the need for new fields, Yousaf added. 

Green campaigners told The Ferret it was “appalling that oil lobbyists are being granted special access to the highest levels of the Scottish Government”. They called for current lobbying rules to be “tightened up” to “keep polluters out of climate policy”.

But the trade body for the oil and gas industry said it engages with politicians in an “open and transparent manner”. The challenges posed by climate change mean the energy industry and government “must meet regularly and often” in order to “build understanding and, hopefully, consensus”, a spokesperson claimed.

True North said it was “entirely legitimate” that the first minister should “hear directly from a sector that employs 100,000 people in Scotland”. 

Details of discussions at the True North dinner were released to The Ferret following a freedom of information request to the Scottish Government. The dinner was held in Aberdeen during the Offshore Europe oil and gas conference, which was attended by over 30,000 people.

The dinner operated under Chatham House Rules, meaning the minutes do not name the individuals or companies who made specific comments.

oil humza yousaf
“People in the north-east and throughout the country would expect the first minister to engage constructively with major employers and industries in Scotland, just as he does with all sectors of society,” a Scottish Government spokesperson said. Image: Weixi Zeng

‘Polarised’ and ‘toxic’

As well as discussing oil and gas, guests were keen to highlight their investments in green energy. According to the minutes, they “emphasised their commitment to the energy transition” and said oil and gas companies would play an “important role” in the switch to renewables.

However, slow processes to greenlight new renewables projects and expand the electricity grid had “frustrated” investment, guests said. The windfall tax on energy profits meant some companies did not have enough money to expand beyond oil and gas, they claimed. 

Given the “integrated nature” of the energy industry – with companies operating in fossil fuels and renewables – “a narrative that divided ‘us and them’, or demonised part of the energy sector was not helpful,” diners argued. 

Attendees at the dinner took aim at the “damaging” language in the Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy which proposed a “presumption against” new oil and gas exploration. 

That policy has proved controversial, with the Scottish Greens hailing it as a “generational tipping point” in favour of renewable energy, but some business groups in the north east branding it as a “breathtaking betrayal” of the North Sea industry. 

Critics of the strategy include True North’s directors Geoff Aberdein – Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff – and Fergus Mutch, the SNP’s former media chief. True North does not name the companies it works on behalf of, but a blog on its website notes that its advisors were “busy” at the Offshore Europe conference “engaging with clients”. 

The draft energy strategy was consulted on earlier this year and a final version is due to be published in the summer of 2024. Powers to licence new oil and gas fields are reserved to Westminster, but the Scottish Government’s stance on the sector is seen as symbolically important. 

The companies at the dinner requested that Humza Yousaf and the Scottish Government provide “visible support” to the energy industry and asked for this to “extend not just to their work in renewables but to oil and gas production too”.

The minutes continue: “Some guests suggested that if the supply chain did not have an oil and gas industry to support it would not pivot to renewables but would disappear.” 

In response, Yousaf said that the “polarised” and “toxic” nature of the debate had overshadowed investments by energy companies in renewables. But he stressed the “reality of the climate emergency”. 

The meeting minutes continue: “The first minister noted that he was looking to develop a nuanced position, where his starting point on any new licence was, ‘convince us’ and that is why the Scottish Government is calling for a robust and transparent climate compatibility checkpoint.”

He added that while the companies had said they are committed to a “just transition” away from oil and gas, “the wider public were not convinced”. 

‘Special pleading’ 

Tessa Khan, executive director of the campaign group Uplift, said it is “deeply troubling” that oil companies are using “well connected PR firms like True North” to access politicians. The industry’s “special pleading serves nothing and no-one, except their bottom line”, she said. 

Khan added: “It is entirely right that politicians side with the public, particularly when thousands of people are experiencing first hand the tragic and disruptive effects of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“The reason the First Minister – and many voters in Scotland – need convincing to support new drilling, is because there is no public case for opening up new fields like Rosebank.”

Khan’s view was echoed by Friends of the Earth Scotland campaigner, Ric Lander. “It’s appalling that oil lobbyists are being granted special access to the highest levels of the Scottish Government,” he said.

Lander continued: “It is deeply concerning that Humza Yousaf is not convinced enough by the mounting evidence of climate breakdown both at home and abroad to say clearly that the Scottish Government cannot support new fossil fuels.”

A spokesperson for Offshore Energies UK, the trade body which represents the North Sea oil sector, said it would “always champion our industry to all politicians on a cross-party basis and do so in an open and transparent manner”. 

They added: “The energy transition alone will involve huge changes to the Scottish and UK energy landscape– and that means people involved in the energy industry and government must meet regularly and often.”

Their special pleading serves nothing and no-one, except their bottom line.

Tessa Khan, Uplift

“This is how industry and government build understanding and, hopefully, consensus.”

A True North spokesperson said the company paid for the dinner “in its entirety and proactively published a summary of the discussion on our website and LinkedIn page shortly afterwards”. 

“It is entirely legitimate that the First Minister should hear directly from a sector that employs around 100,000 people in Scotland and contributes significantly to our economic and energy security, and we welcome this engagement,” the spokesperson said.

They added that Geoff Aberdein and Fergus Mutch are “fully aware of the critical importance of our domestic energy industry to the North East, Scottish and UK economies”. They had “regularly and publicly made clear” that the “North Sea energy sector will be an essential driver of an accelerated transition to net zero”. 

“They have expressed these views sincerely and openly, long before they formed True North, and will continue to give their full support to Scotland’s productive, pioneering and truly world class energy sector”, the spokesperson said. 

True North did not confirm whether any of the companies who attended the dinner are currently its clients.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “People in the north-east and throughout the country would expect the first minister to engage constructively with major employers and industries in Scotland, just as he does with all sectors of society. 

“The first minister has been clear, in line with proposals in the draft energy strategy and just transition plan, that any further extraction and use of fossil fuels must be consistent with Scotland’s climate obligations and just transition commitments.”

True North dinner FoI

Main image: Scottish Government/Keming Tan

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