Oil - A Crude History Of Britain


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It is 40 years since the first barrel of oil was drawn out of the North Sea, overflowing with slippery promise. That first barrel ushered in an era in which the UK dared to dream of global influence, wealth beyond measure, and an infinitely brighter future. The Prime Minister in 1977, James Callaghan, described North Sea oil as a God-given opportunity. But has Britain made the most of that opportunity?

This 3-part series, presented by James Naughtie, hears from those who were there at the beginning of Britain's 'black gold' rush, those who have wrangled over managing the industry over the last 4 decades, and those who seek now to make the best of a dwindling supply. It is the story of how our political, economic, and cultural institutions planned for and dealt with the unexpected windfall and challenge of North Sea oil.

Programme 1, Black Spring, tells the story of a technical and engineering miracle that took place against the odds, in stormy seas hundreds of feet deep, in the 1970s. We'll hear how achievement in the North Sea boosted both tax revenues and national confidence, at a time when both were in dangerously short supply.

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In Norway, and in Shetland, funds drawing a tax on North Sea oil wealth have built up massive reserves of public money. Calls for such an Oil Fund for the UK have been ignored down the years, dismissed as impractical or undesirable.

Instead, North Sea oil, once held up as a transformational force in British politics, came to be used in the day-to-day expenditure of government. Critics argued that what could have been used to upgrade Britain's infrastructure was paying benefits cheques to Thatcher's 3-million unemployed.

Elsewhere, the SNPs "It's Scotland's Oil" campaign had brought the party to the brink of a political breakthrough. In episode 2 of Oil: A Crude History of Britain, James Naughtie explores all these strands with those who were there at the time, including former Chancellor and Energy Secretary Nigel, now Lord, Lawson.

Jim also recalls the tragic loss of 167 lives on Piper Alpha in July 1988. He hears from one of Red Adair's globe-trotting specialist firefighters, who spent weeks tackling what is still the deadliest ever oil industry disaster.

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Enough oil and gas has been drawn from the UK continental shelf to fill almost 3-million Olympic-sized swimming pools. In recent years though, the global oil price has slumped, the UK industry tax-take is well down, and redundancies are being made across the board.

Moreover, the estimated 15- to 24-billion barrels of oil left to be recovered are in ever deeper and harder-to-reach areas. What is the future for the North Sea, and for areas that rely on oil and gas for jobs, like Europe's 'oil capital' Aberdeen? Oil no longer feels transformational for Britain in the way it did 40 years ago. Far from being a gushing font of power, it is now the sluggish dark stream which runs under Britain's politics.

In this final episode of Oil: A Crude History of Britain, James Naughtie also speaks to decision-makers about the long term impact of oil on the British State. In a world in which Russia, China and the OPEC countries all use their gas and oil reserves as tools of geo-politics, did Britain make the most of its North Sea oil rush?