AT SEA - FEBRUARY 24: A general view of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea on February 24, 2014, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The British cabinet will meet in Scotland for only the third time in history to announce plans for the country's oil industry, which it warns will decline if Scots vote for independence. The fate of North Sea oil revenues will be a key issue ahead of the September 18 referendum to decide whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old union with England, and is expected to be the focus of Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet meeting. (Photo by Andy Buchanan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

If Scotland Secedes, Who Gets Its Oil?

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. A former chief Washington commentator of the Financial Times, he previously worked at the Economist and as a senior editor at the Atlantic.
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The U.K.'s debate over Scottish independence is an oddly blinkered affair. People are obsessing over things that don't matter and ignoring things that do -- such as who owns the U.K.'s North Sea oil.

First, understand that this divorce could happen. The opinion polls are still moving around. As of last week, the pro-union campaign had lost ground and was only slightly ahead. Then an interview was published in which Alex Salmond, first minister of the devolved Scottish government and leader of the independence movement, praised Vladimir Putin and appeared to call Scotland a "nation of drunks" -- which was a bit of a setback. But the passion and momentum still seem to be for independence. The end of the union is a serious possibility.

Yet neither campaign seems bothered by the main issues. The biggest of all -- you could say the very basis of the independence movement -- hasn't been seriously addressed.

The emotional and economic case for independence rests on the idea that the U.K.'s North Sea oil -- which provides about 5 percent of the government's tax revenue -- will belong to Scotland. (Many Scots would say that, in justice, it always did.) "Scotland is endowed with significant oil and gas reserves," says the Scottish government's prospectus for independence. "The tax revenues from these, which currently go to the U.K. Treasury, would remain in Scotland."

As the economist Paul Collier recently dared to point out, oil that's already been discovered belongs in law to the U.K. Rights over future oil revenues should therefore be up for negotiation. And the starting point for that discussion should be that, with 8 percent of the U.K.'s population, Scotland might expect 8 percent of the revenues.

The issue will presumably surface when the terms of separation are being discussed, if it comes to that -- but it hasn't influenced the debate so far. I'm not sure what it tells you about the English that they aren't laughing at Scotland's claim to oil that belongs to the U.K. Perhaps it's a desire not to offend -- that's pretty English.

Instead, the debate is centering over questions such as whether independence would help or hurt Scottish business, and whether an independent Scotland could retain sterling as its currency and join the European Union in its own right. These are phoney questions, because the answers aren't in doubt.

Scale of jurisdiction is not an issue: Businesses do just fine in small, open, well-run states. Regarding the currency, Scotland could use the euro or establish its own money -- which it could call the pound and fix at parity with sterling, if for some reason it wanted to do that. What it couldn't do is retain sterling without the U.K.'s agreement (which won't happen). As for EU membership, of course Scotland would swiftly become a member: The process might be bureaucratically complex but a way would be found.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net