Revealed: the oil industry's SNP lobbyists

Revealed: the oil industry’s SNP lobbyists

Revealed: the oil industry's SNP lobbyists 5

Lobbying on behalf of the oil industry by former SNP spin doctors has sparked fears that the Scottish Government could be about to abandon its opposition to new oil exploration in the North Sea.

The Ferret can reveal that a public relations firm run by previously senior SNP officials has lobbied the government for the oil giant, Shell. It has also met with John Swinney and Kate Forbes before they became first minister and deputy first minister in May 2024.

Campaigners are concerned that the new Scottish Government leadership is considering dropping the proposed “presumption against new exploration for oil and gas” from its energy strategy. They attacked “well paid lobbyists working on behalf of greedy fossil fuel companies”.

The Scottish Greens warned that oil companies don’t hire lobbyists “to be nice”. The “revolving door” between polluting industries and government must be stopped, they said.

The public relations firm, True North, said that its work with Shell supported the fossil fuel giant’s long term contribution to domestic energy security through oil and gas. Shell was “key” to energy transition projects and backed carbon capture and offshore wind, the company argued.

The Scottish Government stressed the importance of meeting with major industries, and reiterated its commitment to a “net zero Scotland” by 2045.

In January 2023, the Scottish Government announced a consultation “on whether, in order to support the fastest possible and most effective just transition, there should be a presumption against new exploration for oil and gas.” That was strongly backed by the Scottish Greens, who were in a coalition government with the SNP at the time.

The Scottish Government does not have the power to prevent the licensing of new oil and gas projects. That lies with Westminster, but the policy has a symbolic importance.

But since the Greens were ejected from government in April 2024 and Swinney and Forbes have ascended to power, there are concerns that the presumption could be dropped. Swinney declined to back it in a BBC Good Morning Scotland interview on 13 May.

With the climate crisis getting more urgent by the day, it’s more important than ever that we stop the revolving door between polluting industries and government.

Mark Ruskell MSP, Scottish Greens

True North was launched in 2022 by the SNP’s former head of communications, Fergus Mutch, and former first minister Alex Salmond’s chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, who also co-hosts the Holyrood Sources podcast. They are the firm’s managing partners.

The Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register discloses that Mutch met with the Scottish Government’s chief of staff, Colin McAllister, twice to help promote Shell’s views in late 2023.

The first meeting was at the Scottish Parliament on 27 September 2023 to discuss the future of North Sea oil and gas. According to the lobbying register, this included “its role within the wider context of Scotland’s energy transition and how Shell is diversifying its role.”

Another entry in the register says that Shell’s corporate relations manager, Padraig McCloskey, was also present. One of the topics under discussion was “Shell’s role in continuing to provide the energy the UK needs”.

The same topics were discussed at a second meeting with McAllister in the Scottish Parliament on 7 December 2023. This involved Mutch, McCloskey and Shell’s corporate relations adviser, David Shaw

The Ferret previously reported that True North organised a dinner in Aberdeen on 7 September 2023 enabling oil and gas companies to lobby the then-first minister, Humza Yousaf. Those invited included Shell, BP and the North Sea oil firm, Ithaca Energy, which is linked to a company selling fuel to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza.

Revealed: the oil industry's SNP lobbyists

Guests at the dinner complained to Yousaf that the oil industry was being “demonised” and suffered from a “lack of visible support”. They also attacked the Scottish Government’s proposed presumption against oil and gas exploration as “damaging”.

On behalf of True North, Mutch and his fellow managing partner, Geoff Aberdein, also lobbied the then deputy first minister, John Swinney, and others on 9 October 2022. Discussions were over dinner at Maryculter House Hotel in Aberdeen, along with representatives from many other north east businesses. 

The lobbying register records that Mutch and Aberdein raised “the importance of recognising the oil and gas industry and how its supply chain will play a key role in accelerating the drive to net zero”.

Aberdein also held a video conference with the then-finance secretary, Kate Forbes, on 5 July 2022 emphasising the promotion of the north east of Scotland as a “world-leading catalyst for energy transition.” 

On this occasion he was lobbying on behalf of ETZ, a publicly funded energy transition company in Aberdeen backing offshore wind, carbon capture and green hydrogen. It is chaired by oil tycoon, Sir Ian Wood.

In April, Mutch and Aberdein both welcomed the ending of the Bute House agreement which brought the Greens into the Scottish Government. 

Mutch was strongly opposed to the coalition, urging the SNP to “nuke” the deal with the Greens in September 2023. In March 2024 he encouraged the SNP to “max out domestic production while we still need oil and gas”.

sepa pensions shell snp oil
Public relations firm True North said that its work with Shell supported the fossil fuel giant’s long term contribution to domestic energy security. Image: Jethro Carullo

True North’s role in seeking to influence Scottish Government policy on oil has infuriated environmental campaign groups. “True North are very well-paid lobbyists working on behalf of greedy fossil fuel companies, all profiting from pushing people into fuel poverty and the destruction of our climate,” said Caroline Rance from Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Their cynical plan is to keep Scottish households trapped in a fossil fuel powered energy system that only benefits their paymasters. Their attempts to whisper in the ears of politicians must be rejected by John Swinney and his ministers.”

She added: “If the energy strategy contains yet more oil and gas, we’ll know he has been influenced by the fossil fuel lobby rather than the needs of the people he now represents as first minister.”

The campaign group, Uplift, urged Scottish ministers to ignore “well-connected fossil fuel lobbyists” in favour of the public need for a “liveable planet”. “True North seems to have been busy on Shell’s behalf,” said the group’s executive director, Tessa Khan.

“But it is the job of government and the first minister to put the needs of the public before the profit-seeking demands of the big multinationals. This means sticking with the presumption against new drilling to tackle the climate crisis.”

The Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, said: “Oil and gas companies don’t employ lobbying companies to be nice, they do it for their contacts and their influence in the corridors of power. 

“With the climate crisis getting more urgent by the day, it’s more important than ever that we stop the revolving door between polluting industries and government. Environmental policy must be based on science, not the bank balances and lobbying power of companies like Shell.”

It is the job of government and the first minister to put the needs of the public before the profit-seeking demands of the big multinationals.

Tessa Khan, Uplift

True North said it was privileged to support a wide range of businesses, particularly in energy. “Our work with Shell — a company which employs 1,200 people across Scotland — supports their longstanding contribution to domestic energy security through oil and gas as well as their role in key energy transition projects,” said a company spokesperson.

Shell’s interests included carbon capture and storage as well as offshore wind projects, the company pointed out. “Our energy industry is of critical economic importance to the north east, Scottish and UK economies,” the spokesperson added.

“The critical mass of skills, expertise and the financial capital of that industry will be an essential driver of an accelerated transition to net zero. True North will continue to give our full support to Scotland’s productive, pioneering and truly world-class energy sector.”

The Scottish Government did not comment on the proposed presumption against new oil and gas exploration. “It is important that the Scottish Government meet with a diverse range of organisations, including representatives of major employers and industries, in the course of our service of Scotland,” said a spokesperson. 

“The Scottish Government is fully committed to a just transition to a climate resilient and net zero Scotland by 2045.”

Shell did not respond to requests to comment.

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

Main image: iStock/bomboman

1 comment
  1. Non-story. ‘Massively important sector of the economy makes representations to government.’ Yawn.

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