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Haste Ye Back: What a Yes Vote Would Mean for Investment in the North Sea

18/09/2014 10:48 BST | Updated 18/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The contest in the lead-up to tomorrow's referendum on Scottish independence has intensified in recent weeks. The Yes camp, accused of waging a 'campaign of lies', has now accused the BBC of collusion with Westminster, while the brinkmanship over the national debt and the use of sterling has sent jitters through capital markets.

There have been some commendably moderate voices on both sides, but at grassroots level the debate has become increasingly emotive and polarised. At a rally in Glasgow yesterday, scuffles broke out and pro-union politicians were jostled and heckled. The BBC has become a political punch bag. Observers have reported a real risk of tensions erupting regardless of the result, particularly as any victory is likely to be narrow.

What are David Cameron's and Alex Salmond's strategies in the event of unrest? How would they contain it? Even if the UK stays together, Scotland could end up divided.

As a UK-based oil and gas operator serving customers in the North Sea, and a member of Better Together, what concerns me most are the consequences of a yes vote. This is primarily because such a vote marks the beginning, not the end, of an arduous process in which investors will have to go backwards and forwards between two centres of government. It could take years for a new status quo to be established at Holyrood. My fear is that few will hang around long enough to find out how it might benefit them.

When it comes to emotional appeals, the Yes campaign has had the advantage; Scottish nationalism is a potent force. But make no mistake, there is genuine passion in the No camp too. When David Cameron says a yes vote would be a 'tragedy', he is speaking from the heart. He cares fervently about the union, and we must give him and the other unionist leaders our full support at this historic moment. As a faithful Christian, in the last hours before the vote I will be praying for peace and unity in this country, and I hope others will join me.

Amid the mud-slinging, both sides have made some reasoned arguments. True, there are flaws in the Yes campaign's idea of an oil fund for public services - not least that setting one up would mean less cash to spend now - but clearly an independent Scotland would enjoy the fruits of the North Sea. Better Together has been right to challenge the nationalists' demand for a currency union and to question an independent Scotland's status regarding the European Union. Without a central bank, Scotland would be vulnerable. And until it renegotiates its membership, it would be outside the EU and would have no preferential trade agreement with its biggest export market.

Importantly for the UK as a whole, however, a yes vote would mean a long period of hugely complicated negotiations. The legal statuses, international affiliations, assets, debts and currency arrangements of the successor states would all have to be agreed. The SNP-led Scottish government has settled on March 2016 as the deadline for full independence. Given how fractious these discussions could be, that seems very optimistic.

I would like to have heard more from the unionists on the risks a lengthy transition period might pose, particularly to new investment in the North Sea. During the transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood - in particular the power to grant concessions - investors would have to deal with both administrations. Opinions vary as to the size and viability of the North Sea's remaining reserves, but I would argue that the recent studies which suggest they could be larger than previously thought merit some attention, and that firms are showing an interest in areas such as West of Shetland for a reason.

My view is therefore that the North Sea is at something of a crossroads. Supermajors like BP and Chevron have been steadily winding down under pressure from shareholders, leaving niche firms such as Apache and Enquest to employ new techniques in the race to tap the potential many believe is still there. But only the supermajors can provide the industry leadership and large-scale investment required to realise that potential fully. Nothing in oil exploration is certain, but what is certain is that there can be no 'second boom', or anything like it, unless they return.

So how do we lure them back? Most importantly, we need stable and consistent regulation, and here Salmond and his supporters are justified in criticising London for a disappointing record. We've seen seven energy ministers in the last ten years and the policy agenda has shifted far too much for comfort. But whatever the Yes campaign might say, these uncertainties will be vastly compounded, not resolved, by independence. With rich opportunities constantly opening up all over the world, Big Oil's decisions in the North Sea will always be finely balanced. If those firms are faced with the prospect of operating outside the single market and dealing with two governments locked in prolonged, painful and perhaps resentful negotiations, there will be no decision to make.

Alexander Temerko is a Ukrainian-born businessman and deputy chairman of OGN Group in Newcastle, which employs 3,000 people in the construction of platforms for oil rigs in the North Sea. For more information visit www.alexandertemerko.co.uk.