Young people

Scottish Government urged big oil to use young people to boost COP26 message


The Scottish Government urged the oil and gas industry to use “the voices of young people” for “powerful messaging” at the COP26 climate summit, according to a document obtained by The Ferret.

During a conference call in February 2021 the then energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, pressed for young people to be involved in “sharing the good practice” of oil and gas companies.

An official minute of the call released under freedom of information law reveals that he asked the UK Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to talk to Holyrood political advisers about the industry “raising its profile internationally” at COP26.

Campaigners described Wheelhouse’s reported remarks as “deeply cynical” and accused the Scottish Government of “tokenising” a generation. Ministers should have encouraged the oil industry to listen to what young people from around the world are actually saying at COP26, they said.

Wheelhouse, who ceased being a minister after he lost his seat in the May elections, said that his comments had been misunderstood. Young people in the oil business were challenging industry leaders to do better and that was “surely a valuable message”, he argued.

The Ferret revealed in September 2021 that as minister Wheelhouse had consulted oil multinationals on “choreography around COP26”. We also reported that most OGA directors and managers used to work for the industry, and three had shares worth over £225,000 in oil and gas companies.

The minute of the conference call was released by the Scottish Government. It recounted a discussion on 10 February 2021 between Wheelhouse and senior OGA officials on the role of the oil and gas industry at COP26.

“The minister noted that there is a lot of powerful messaging from the sector which should be evidenced and include the voices of young people and their role as part of energy transition,” the minute recorded.

Wheelhouse suggested this should “include sharing the good practice of the sector both at home but also raising its profile internationally.”

The minute added: “The minister suggested it would be useful for the OGA to have a follow up discussion with spads on COP.” Spads are the special political advisors to Scottish ministers.

According to the minute, officials were to arrange for a “short discussion” between the OGA and two advisors, Màiri McAllan and Callum McCaig. McAllan has since been elected as an MSP and appointed as environment minister.

Rather than challenge the dangers posed by the oil and gas lobby, the government lent them PR advice on how to tokenise our generation.

Lily Henderson, Fridays for Future Scotland

The youth climate campaign, Fridays For Future Scotland, attacked the Scottish Government for the “hollow nature” of its commitment to work with young people. “To decision-makers, young people remain a tool to be deployed as and when is convenient by the establishment,” said the campaign’s Lily Henderson.

“Rather than challenge the dangers posed by the oil and gas lobby, the government lent them PR advice on how to tokenise our generation. If we are to save the planet we must stand up to the fossil fuel lobby, not pander to them.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that young climate leaders were fighting for the future by opposing the oil and gas industry. “This looks like a deeply cynical attempt from Scotland’s former energy minister to encourage oil companies to use young people to try and launder their dirty reputations at the climate conference,” said the environmental group’s director Dr Richard Dixon.

“Young people will be shocked that this is what ministers were recommending to big polluters in their cosy chats behind closed doors. Oil and gas companies are the key driver of the climate crisis and all the attempted “youth-washing” in the world won’t change that fact.”

Greenpeace UK criticised the Scottish Government for offering “marketing advice” to the oil industry. “A wiser minister would have told them to listen to the voices of the millions of young people around the world demanding bold climate action and a just transition for affected communities” said the campaign group’s Sam Chetan Welsh.

“Suggesting they co-opt the voices of young people to promote themselves implies rather misplaced loyalties.”

The Scottish Greens warned that no government could yet claim to have done enough to tackled the climate emergency. “Cynical moves like this by the former minister only make it harder to build the trust that governments are willing to deliver the necessary change,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“I am confident that now Greens are in government we will begin to see a much greater focus on climate action.”

I recognise those criticising me were not there. Brief meeting minutes don’t help.

Paul Wheelhouse, former Scottish minister

Paul Wheelhouse accused critics of not understanding his reported remarks. “I recognise those criticising me were not there. Brief meeting minutes don’t help,” he told The Ferret.

“I referenced testimony from highly articulate young people from the sector’s future industry leaders’ forum. They spoke with passion at an OGA North Sea transition forum meeting on the necessity of the industry and supply chain reaching net zero.”

According to Wheelhouse, the young people said that they and their peers were the future and were working to create a sustainable industry beyond net zero, challenging current industry leaders to do better and move faster.

“That’s surely a valuable message to communicate — not least to their counterparts in other nations,” he said.

“I’m proud of my record while Scotland’s energy minister. I oversaw our renewable energy supply increasing from 59 per cent to meet almost 96 per cent of Scotland’s electricity demand by 2020, and was recognised for my contribution at the last Scottish Green Energy Awards.”

He added: “I stopped fracking and underground coal gasification, launched Scotland’s first energy strategy, offshore wind strategy, and hydrogen policy and piloted pioneering legislation on heat networks through parliament. 

“However, I also helped move Scotland’s oil and gas sector from initial, perceived competition with renewables onto a pathway of collaboration with, and investment in, offshore wind, marine energy, carbon capture, utilisation and storage and hydrogen — all to support Scotland’s reaching net zero.”

The Scottish Government stressed that it was working with children to help achieve net zero. “Ministers undertake a wide range of stakeholder engagements relevant to their portfolio areas,” said a spokesperson.

“The newly-created roles of net zero secretary, just transition minister and minister for environment and biodiversity this parliamentary term reflects our ongoing commitment to ensuring we engage and work with every corner of society on our continuing journey to net zero.”

The Oil and Gas Authority insisted that it doesn’t promote the oil and gas industry and had no role on COP26. “The OGA is committed to helping the UK and Scottish governments reach their targets of net zero emissions and is working with them and industry on the vital role that the oil and gas industry must play in the UK energy transition,” said a spokesperson.

Oil and Gas UK, which represents the North Sea industry, declined to comment.

The minute released by the Scottish Government

Cover image thanks to iStock/triocean.

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