In Shetland, Oil Shapes Debate Over Scottish Independence : Parallels Offshore oil and gas money is central to the debate over whether Scotland should break off from the U.K. — especially in the remote Shetland Islands, where North Sea oil has transformed the economy.

In Shetland, Oil Shapes Debate Over Scottish Independence

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Come this September, Scotland will vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom and become independent. So far, the debate has been less about national identity and more about money. The income from oil and gas fields off the Scottish coast is central to this economic debate. And the remote Shetland Islands, many miles from the Scottish mainland, are where that oil comes ashore. NPR's Ari Shapiro sent this report.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Edna Burke was born and raised on these islands. She's only in her 60s, but the change she has seen in her lifetime is hard to fathom.

EDNA BURKE: In the days when we were growing up, there wasn't very much money around and - quite a struggle for my parents to be able to bring up a family.

SHAPIRO: The family raised their own sheep and vegetables on a small subsistence farm called a croft. Her father still had to take an extra job at the stone quarry to get by.

BURKE: My father would use the boat to go to work in the morning and row back again at night.

SHAPIRO: Oil was discovered offshore in the 1970s, and everything changed in a flash. The author Ann Cleeves remembers when she first came to Shetland in 1975.

ANN CLEEVES: And it was like a gold rush town 'cause it was full of people coming up to get money quickly and - very interesting times.

SHAPIRO: Everyone thought the oil fields would dry up in 20 years, but they didn't. Buildings that went up as temporary housing 40 years ago are still in use today. The waterfront holds a bunch of old cruise ships that are now floating dormitories for the workers. And thanks, in part, to oil money, Shetland has some of the best roads, schools and arts programs anywhere in the U.K. - all this for a remote island cluster of barely more than 20,000 people.

We've been driving for miles through barren hillsides with nothing but sheep and grass. And now we're at the mouth of an inlet known as a voe in the local Shetland dialect, and this is Sullom Voe. It's the largest oil and gas terminal in Europe. On the horizon, I can see crude oil storage tanks, a processing plant, a power station and a flare stack - a tall tower burning off the waste gases.

JIM DICKSON: Shetland was basically ignored by all the governments until the mid-1970s, and then, lo and behold - what did we find off our shores? - oil and gas, and everything changed.

SHAPIRO: Jim Dickson used to be the harbor master at Sullom Voe. At its peak, he was guiding 800 tankers a year through the terminal. This would all be of passing local interest if it were not for a vote coming up in September. Scotland will decide whether to leave the United Kingdom, and Shetland's oil and gas is central to the debate.

DICKSON: In fact, it's the mainstay of their economic argument, as they say. In Shetland, we have a very jaundiced view of all this because whether we're ruled from London or Edinburgh, it's still a long, long way away.

SHAPIRO: The independence camp and the unity folks have totally opposite forecasts for the oil industry. Unity says it'll dry up, and Scotland will suffer without help from London. Independent says the industry will thrive and keep Scotland booming. David Bell is an economist at Scotland's University of Stirling.

DAVID BELL: There are a lot of people out there who seem to think that there is some calculation that can be done that will give it a clear answer here, but that's not the case.

SHAPIRO: He says when it comes to future income from Shetland oil and gas, the best anyone can do is make an educated guess. That's a risk Edna Burke is not willing to take.

BURKE: My husband and I have got one opinion and - because we've lived through the poor times, and I think we worry if Scotland does go independent and when there's no longer oil and gas in the waters how Scotland will cope. But the younger members of the family hold a totally different opinion. So we don't discuss it.

SHAPIRO: It's not hard to find people who are willing to take the risk. Steve Mitchell has been out kayaking, even on this wet, cold day. He moved up here about 16 years ago to run the island's only dairy farm.

STEVE MITCHELL: I think a lot of people are maybe pinning a lot of hopes on the gas and oil industry if it does go to a yes vote - maybe slightly falsely. I think it will still have benefits for an independent Scotland but not maybe as much as some people think.

SHAPIRO: Still, he's planning on voting for independence. For him, it's not a question of economics. It's about national identity. And he says he would rather see Scotland governed by Scotland. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Shetland.

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