Scottish Nationalist, Labour, LibDem and Conservative MEPs are all fighting to stop the European Commission introducing a ban on drilling for deep sea oil. The Commission wants to prevent another disaster like that at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the MEPs argue that a ban could cost oil companies billions of pounds, and isn’t necessary because UK safety standards are better than those in the US. This has infuriated green groups, who have lambasted the politicians for protecting company profits instead of the planet.
The LibDem MEP, George Lyon, and the Tory MEP, Struan Stevenson, will this week be pressing for a meeting with the European Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, to urge him not to propose a moratorium.
Leaked Commission documents suggest that on Wednesday Oettinger is going to put forward a proposal for a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling for oil and gas while the implications of BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico are investigated.
This would be contrary to the majority view of the European Parliament, which last week voted by 323 to 285 to reject a moratorium suggested by MEPs on the environment committee. This followed concerted lobbying by the oil industry, the UK and Scottish governments, who all oppose a ban.
They were helped by Lyon and Stevenson, who spoke and voted against the moratorium. The four other Scottish MEPs also voted against it: Ian Hudghton and Alyn Smith from the SNP, and Labour’s David Martin and Catherine Stihler.
"There has rarely been a more blatant round of environmental hypocrisy than this vote by Scotland's MEPs against a deepwater moratorium,” the Scottish Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, told the Sunday Herald.
“They talk endlessly about climate change and pretend to be green, but when this vote came they voted to risk our coastlines, our economy, our environment and our international credibility.”
Harvie argued that the need to cut the pollution that is disrupting the climate meant that Scotland had to move to renewable energy now instead of burning every last drop of oil.
He added: “The shameful six are Scotland's voice in Europe, and Europe has now got the message - not one of them meant a word of their environmental pledges.”
The MEPs defended their position, arguing that they were acting in Scotland’s best interests. "Safety standards in the North Sea are among the toughest in the world,” said Lyon.
“A drilling ban would have had a disproportionate effect on Scotland as we have some of the most promising areas for development,” he added. The UK government recently gave the go-ahead for deep sea drilling near Shetland.
Stevenson described the vote in the European parliament as “a victory for common sense and facts, not for alarmism and knee-jerk responses.” And the SNP’s Smith argued that the Commission should not be interfering with national energy policy in this way.
But environmental groups piled on the criticism. “This voting by the Scottish MEPs reveals a cosy consensus around the oil industry's lobbying points,” said the director of WWF Scotland, Dr Richard Dixon.
“We elect our MEPs to protect the public interest not protect company profits but that's exactly what they are doing by ignoring calls for a proper review of the safety of deep water drilling.”
Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, pointed out that Europe was paying people in Ecuador to leave their oil in the soil to protect the climate. “Yet all Scottish MEPs seem to think that even a moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling in European waters is unacceptable,” he said.
“The only losers from a moratorium would be the big oil companies. A moratorium would help us ensure better safety standards if drilling then resumes. It would help us focus on creating jobs in offshore renewables and carbon storage, it would protect the rare and delicate wildlife of our deep seas, and it would give us a better chance of preventing dangerous climate change.”
Oil and Gas UK, which represents the offhsore industry, welcomed the stance taken by MEPs. “A moratorium on deep-sea drilling is unjustified and inappropriate,” said the group’s chief executive, Malcolm Webb. “We now urge the Commission to take this into account as it formulates its views.”
Pressing the wrong button
It’s a hard life being a member of the European Parliament. You have to keep going to Brussels and Strasbourg, you only get one minute to speak in debates, and then you actually have to vote on vital policies.
That’s the really hard bit. It involves pressing a button, but even experienced MEPs sometimes manage to get that wrong. The LibDem MEP, George Lyon, confessed last week that’s why he initially appeared to vote in favour of a ban on deep sea drilling for oil, despite having spoken against it.
“It was genuine mistake,” said his spokesman. “George pressed the wrong button.” But never fear, the vote has been corrected, so that Mr Lyon is now on record as opposing a ban, making him something of a rebel within the Liberal group, which was backing the idea.
The prize for the most complicated rebellion, however, must go to the two Scottish Nationalist MEPs, Ian Hudghton and Alyn Smith. They abandoned their green alliance group to vote against the oil ban on the grounds that it would damage Scottish industry.
But they then went a step further and voted against a much wider motion calling for stricter controls on safety in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This was because it would have enhanced European Union (EU) control over national energy policy, they said.
But unfortunately it also put them in the same camp as the UKIP anti-Europeans, led by Nigel Farage, as well as the two British National Party MEPs, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons.
But then every party has its extremists with a knack for winding people up. The Tory MEP for the East Midlands, Roger Helmer, couldn’t resist echoing the right-wing US republican Sarah Palin’s infamous words in a tweet on Thursday.
“At last some good news,” he wrote. “MEPs have just voted down the proposed EU moratorium on off-shore oil exploration. Drill, baby, drill!”
The six MEPs responded in a letter to the Sunday Herald here.