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A section of the BP Eastern Trough Area Project (ETAP) oil platform is seen in the North Sea, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen in Scotland February 24, 2014. (POOL/REUTERS)
A section of the BP Eastern Trough Area Project (ETAP) oil platform is seen in the North Sea, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen in Scotland February 24, 2014. (POOL/REUTERS)

The Scots are treading water on North Sea oil Add to ...

When a bunch of hot-headed separatists want to carve out a new country from the motherland, they lobby for a referendum (never binding until it is finally won, of course) and unleash the economic propaganda machine. Alone, they say, we will not just be freer; we will be wealthier.

So it was with Quebec, which had dreams of using scads of cheap, renewable hydro power to create an industrial powerhouse within NAFTA. So it is with Catalonia, a fairly wealthy region in Spain that argues it delivers far more tax revenue to Madrid than it gets back.

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And so it is with Scotland, whose beachfront property includes one of the world’s great oil producing fields – the North Sea. Not only does Scotland think the North Sea will remain a tax-revenue gusher practically forever, it vows not to use it as a tax grab, for fear that doing so would scare away investment. The first assumption is wishful thinking; the second might be a hollow promise.

The North Sea has always been part of Scotland’s economic, political and emotional psyche, even though it belongs to Britain and is most closely identified with Maggie Thatcher, who used it as an ATM in her ruthless campaign to reinvent the British economy.

Commercial quantities of oil were found in the British and Norwegian sides of the North Sea in the late 1960s and many discoveries were made over the next 30 years, turning Britain into an energy powerhouse. From the late 1990s until the early part of the past decade, it was pumping out about four million barrels a day. That’s double the current production of the Alberta oil sands.

Scottish nationalists always resented British ownership of the oil. In the 1970s, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) started to make a political splash, its war cry was “It’s Scotland’s oil.” And most of it will be, subject to negotiation, if Scotland wins the September referendum on independence. While the “Yes” vote is trailing the “No” vote in the polls, they could be wrong. A narrow loss by the separatists would only inspire another vote, a little trick employed now and again in Quebec.

The good news for a stand-alone Scotland is that the North Sea is alive and pumping out billions of pounds in tax revenue. The bad is that production is in rapid decline.

The government of Prime Minister David Cameron made the (successful) case for shale-gas drilling on British soil by citing the North Sea’s waning output. Between 1999 and 2010, production fell on average 6 per cent a year, according to the Economist magazine. Since 2010 alone, production has fallen by 40 per cent and is now running at about 1.4 million barrels a day. Coaxing new oil out of old fields – the specialty of the new breed of small North Sea players such as London’s EnQuest PLC – may keep output from plummeting anew. But the long-term trend is intact. The fields are in a slow-motion suicide and the oil revenues cherished by Edinburgh and London will become ever feebler, then die.

But tell that to the Scottish nationalists. Fear not, good “Yes” voters, they say; the North Sea cash machine is more robust than it appears.

The SNP, led by Alex Salmond, himself a former oil economist, expects the North Sea to produce at least £35-billion ($64-million) in oil tax revenue between now and the 2017-18 fiscal year. Britain’s independent Office of Budget Responsibility has a different view. It puts the figure at £18.8-billion. Of course, both sets of figures could differ wildly, depending on oil prices, but it is obvious that the SNP’s number crunchers have a far more optimistic view of the North Sea’s ability to attract investment and clever oil-extraction technology than their counterparts in London.

Investment, and lots of it, is the key to keeping North Sea production from collapsing. Exploration has to keep going and new oil finds have to be connected to production platforms. This process is getting more expensive every year. North Sea operating costs per barrel have reached about $60 (U.S.) and that’s before capital costs and the “abandonment liability” – the cost of dismantling surplus production infrastructure when the oil field runs dry.

Oil executives who have talked to Mr. Salmond said that he insists he would not milk the North Sea by jacking up tax rates, a scenario that would scare away investment.

But he is a politician. The British government was well aware that the North Sea needed investment and still hiked taxes. In 2011, London boosted the “supplementary charge” on oil and gas production, a sort of windfall tax, to 32 per cent from 20 per cent. That took overall taxation to a hefty 62 per cent (North Sea producers pay high taxes but are spared royalties).

The temptation for an independent Scotland to do the same might be overwhelming.

Scotland would struggle for the first few years on its own while it extracts itself from the United Kingdom, negotiates entry into the European Union and tries to keep big employers, such as banks, from fleeing to England. It may get saddled with a bigger chunk of Britain’s debt than it had expected. If emergency revenue is needed, the politicians’ natural instinct would be to follow the money and wade into the North Sea.

Killing the goose that laid the golden egg often proves irresistible.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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