The ‘rogues’ gallery’: Scotland’s top 20 climate polluters


A cement works, a glass plant and a well-known whisky distillery are among Scotland’s top 20 climate polluters, The Ferret can reveal.

Over six million tonnes of carbon dioxide were also released by six big oil and gas companies in Scotland in 2020, according to a new inventory of industrial pollution from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).

Campaigners said that the data exposed a “rogues’ gallery of the most climate-trashing sites in Scotland”. They argued that oil and gas companies “cannot be trusted to lead the transition to a zero-carbon economy”.

The companies, however, all stressed their efforts to cut emissions, including the introduction of new carbon storage and hydrogen technologies. The energy and products they provided were essential to meet society’s needs, they said.

Sepa highlighted that carbon dioxide emissions from all industries had fallen by six per cent between 2019 and 2020. But it added that some of this could be attributed to site closures and cuts in production caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 31 March Sepa published the Scottish Pollutant Release Inventory for 2020, which was delayed because of a cyber attack and the pandemic. The inventory contains data on 48 air pollutants from 1,298 sites around the country.

The Ferret analysed the data to uncover the top 20 carbon dioxide polluters. The gas is the primary driver of climate warming which is causing droughts, floods and storms around the globe.

By far the biggest polluter was the petrochemical giant, Ineos. Five of the company’s plants at Grangemouth emitted over three million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, down eight per cent from 2019.

SSE’s gas-fired power station at Peterhead was the biggest single polluter in 2020, as it was in 2019 and 2018. The plant emitted 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, 18 per cent less than in 2019 because of the pandemic.

Another major emitter was ExxonMobil’s ethylene plant at Mossmorran in Fife. Its emissions increased by a third to over 900,000 tonnes in 2020, though according to Sepa this was mainly due to the plant being closed for four months in 2019 for maintenance.

Other sites in the top 20 polluters’ league included two in Shetland, EnQuest’s Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal and the TotalEnergies Laggan-Tormore gas plant. There were also two operated by Shell: the St Fergus gas plant at Peterhead and the Mossmorran gas plant in Fife.

The sixth largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2020 was Tarmac’s cement works at Dunbar in East Lothian. Two waste incinerators, William Grant’s whisky distillery in Girvan and an O-I glass manufacturing plant in Alloa were also in the top 20.

Two paper mills in Irvine and Stirling and two biomass plants in Glenrothes and Lockerbie were on the list. But they argued that most of their emissions were “carbon neutral” because they were burning wood rather than fossil fuels.

Scotland's top 20 climate polluters

PolluterCarbon dioxide emissions 2019 (tonnes)Carbon dioxide emissions 2020 (tonnes)
SSE gas power station, Peterhead1,579,0001,294,000
Petroineos oil refinery, Grangemouth1,343,0001,036,000
ExxonMobil ethylene plant, Mossmorran680,000902,000
Ineos chemical plant, Grangemouth522,000631,000
Ineos combined heat and power station, Grangemouth641,000615,000
Ineos infrastructure plant, Grangemouth429,000470,000
Tarmac cement works, Dunbar559,000427,000
RWE Markinch biomass plant, Glenrothes487,000410,000
E.ON Steven’s Croft biomass plant, Lockerbie371,000335,000
Viridor waste incinerator, Dunbar274,000316,000
UPM Caledonian paper mill, Irvine284,000298,000
Shell St Fergus gas plant, Peterhead303,000292,000
Ineos oil and gas pipeline, Grangemouth361,000269,000
Norbord paper mill, Stirling210,000204,000
EnQuest Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal, Shetland181,000176,000
Shell gas plant, Mossmorran250,000166,000
TotalEnergies Laggan-Tormore gas plant, Shetland208,000164,000
FCC Millerhill waste incinerator, Dalkeith132,000163,000
William Grant whisky distillers, Girvan165,000163,000
O-I glass plant, Alloa149,000137,000
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Friends of the Earth Scotland called on governments to support a transition away from high-carbon industries. “This list is a real rogues gallery of the most climate-trashing sites in Scotland,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“As individuals are being urged to make greener choices to tackle climate change, these big industrial sites seem to get away with polluting year on year with near impunity.”

Church described Peterhead, Grangemouth and Mossmorran as “serial offenders” because of the harm they do to the environment. “Workers across these sites have the skills and knowledge to transform what they do into decent, green jobs in industries that support people and planet,” she argued.

Oil and gas companies cannot be trusted to lead the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Mark Ruskell, Green MSP

Professor James Curran, a former Sepa chief executive and climate scientist, pointed out that the latest United Nations report concluded that it was “now or never” for cutting climate emissions. “We seem to be headed for Neverland,” he told The Ferret.

“Just producing oil and gas releases methane, a powerful driver of climate change.  Burning those fuels then releases carbon dioxide, the biggest overall contributor to climate change.”

The Scottish Greens warned that Westminster was “fixated” on backing the fossil fuel industry. “This data shows that oil and gas companies cannot be trusted to lead the transition to a zero-carbon economy,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“They are Scotland’s biggest polluters, even before the use of their damaging hydrocarbons are accounted for.”

Ineos pointed out that it had cut annual carbon dioxide emissions from five to three million tonnes since it bought Grangemouth in 2005. “Our next step, to use hydrogen combined with carbon capture, will reduce this to below two million tonnes a year,” said a company statement.

“We have committed over £1.5 billion to our emission reduction plans, which have one goal, to safely and efficiently reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2045. Climate change is one of the most urgent environmental, economic, and social issues of our time,” it continued.

“Ineos has set an ambitious plan to achieve net zero by 2045, whilst continuing to operate successfully; providing products that people need every day, into medical, transport, construction, and food applications; and employing 2,000 highly skilled people from across Scotland.”

SSE stressed that the Peterhead power station was “absolutely vital” for the electricity system, enabling the growth of wind power. “We are instead taking responsibility by progressing plans to decarbonise Peterhead using carbon capture and storage technology,” said a company spokesperson.

“The clean energy transition is just that – a transition. It can’t be done overnight but, as the UK’s leading generator of renewable energy, investing billions in low-carbon infrastructure, SSE is doing more than anyone to accelerate it.”

ExxonMobil said it aimed to achieve net zero emission from its plants by 2050. “Fife Ethylene Plant is actively exploring technical and process solutions that will help to reduce emissions while continuing to supply the products that society needs,” added a spokesperson.

Enquest said it had commenced a “significant transformation programme” at Sullom Voe and cut its UK emissions ahead of government targets. It had plans “to unlock renewable energy and decarbonisation opportunities through innovative commercial structures,” the company added.

TotalEnergies also promised to keep cutting direct emissions from its facilities. “The main route to achieving these objectives is developing emissions reduction projects on our industrial sites, using the best technologies available,” said a company spokesperson.

While we are making considerable efficiencies to reduce our impact on the environment, we acknowledge we still have more to do.

William Grant & Sons

According to Shell, controlling pollution from its operations was central to its decarbonisation strategy. “We seek to identify ways to optimise our energy use to reduce emissions from the St Fergus and Mossmorran plants,” said a company spokesperson.

Tarmac emphasised that it took its environmental performance very seriously. “We have invested in improving and continually reviewing the effectiveness of our processes to improve efficiency, minimise emissions and manage our carbon dioxide footprint,” said a company spokesperson.

“We continue to engage with Sepa and are fully committed to supporting the Scottish Government’s ambition of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.”

The whisky producer, William Grant & Sons, stressed that it took reducing its environmental impact seriously. “Year by year we increase our efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of every bottle of spirit that we produce,” it said.

“While we are making considerable efficiencies to reduce our impact on the environment, we acknowledge we still have more to do.”

The O-I glass manufacturer pointed out that carbon dioxide emissions at its Alloa plant had reduced by 19 per cent in the last three years, and it was investing in new technology to make further reductions.

UPM Caledonian, which runs a paper mill in Irvine, said it was “disappointing” that Sepa’s inventory did not explain the “fundamental difference” between burning biomass and burning fossil fuels. 

RWE, the operator of the Markinch biomass plant in Glenrothes, said it was “predominantly fuelled by recovered waste wood” which was “recognised as a carbon neutral fuel”.

According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, greenhouse gas emissions from all the sites it regulates fell by six per cent between 2019 and 2020. 

The pandemic had impacted emissions from 30 sites, Sepa added.

“A drop in emissions was reported at energy sites as a result of fewer people travelling during lockdowns and less demand for transport related fuel, while an increase was recorded at others where there was involvement in manufacturing medical supplies.”

Norbord and E.On have also been asked to comment.

Cover image thanks to iStock/gbs097. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

This story was updated at 20.30 on Wednesday 20 April 2022 to include comments from Tarmac.

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