Oil, along with removal of nuclear weapons has been one of the pillars of the Independence movement and the return of Scotland’s oil wealth has always been key part of the SNP’s vision for Scotland. However, as a Green I think that there are serious problems with fuelling an Independent Scotland on oil revenues. So what’s wrong with oil then?
1) Relying on oil to finance Scotland locks us in to having to work with large multinational corporations in our main wealth creating industry. Unlike Norway we do not have a state oil company, and it’s probably too late to create one now. There is little point in returning power to Holyrood only to have decision making completely removed from the democratic process and placed with the boards of Exxon, BP, Shell etc. These companies have shown a total disregard for democracy and human rights in many of the countries they operate in, particularly where they know that the government can’t afford to tell them to leave. Scotland can do better than aspiring to be Nigeria! The recent revelations of oil executive Ian Taylor’s donations to Better Together and the Tories gives a taste of what might come! Although at present a lot of Scotland’s renewables capacity is operated by multinationals it is not too late to bring large scale electricity generation back under state ownership and to encourage/require communities to be more involved in owning or managing smaller projects such as community turbines and solar panels on public buildings.
2) The value of oil reserves in the future is uncertain and will depend both on demand and the technical feasibility of extracting it. At the moment oil companies play a finely balanced game in which they want to increase their stated extractable reserves to increase their share prices but not want to make it look as if there are limitless reserves which would push down the price which they can sell oil at. At present the stated extractable reserves and their value have been hyped up in a “carbon bubble”(1) which will burst sooner or later and cause prices to crash as much of the reserves are either not extractable or would cause enormous environmental damage and/or runaway climate change if exploited. Which brings me on to:
3) Climate change. Burning fossil fuels such as oil produces carbon dioxide (CO2) which is the main gas causing climate change. We are currently extremely close to the threshold CO2 concentration which would take climate change into a “positive feedback” loop (atmospheric concentrations of 400 ppm were reported today(2) for the first time compared to pre-industrial levels around 250 ppm). Positive feedback is where temperatures have increased so much that more CO2 will be released from natural sources such as peat bogs and oceans whatever we do. We may just be able to avoid this runaway greenhouse effect, but not if we keep using fossil fuels.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology fitted to large point sources of CO2 such as power stations could capture CO2 and pump into underground for storage but CCS is still at the development stage. Although there is a reasonable chance that it could work we are probably at least 10 years away from commercial scale use on a power station. The big question is how much CO2 stays in the geological strata it is pumped into. To stop it causing climate change it will need to stay there for ever. The most likely rock type for storing CO2 is empty or partly empty oil and gas reserves. CO2 is already pumped into oil and gas reservoirs as a way of getting more oil out, but in this application there hasn’t been much need for it to stay there. (The cynical might think that the fossil fuel industry’s enthusiasm for CCS might be because as well as storing CO2 it enables them to get more oil and gas out!) However there is only capacity to store 20 – 30 years’ worth of emissions in these reservoirs. After that other underground stores would be needed. It might be possible to store CO2 in other rock formations such as saline aquifers which have much larger capacity, but whether it would stay there is much more uncertain. While Scotland does have depleted oil and gas reservoirs it does not have any saline aquifers. Another limitation is that CCS can’t be fitted to sources of CO2 which move about, like vehicles.
One of the aims of independence is to promote fairness and protect the vulnerable. However runaway climate change is incompatible with this as vulnerable people will be hardest hit by the changes. They are less likely to be able to adapt their homes; more likely to live on flood plains; less likely to be able to afford increased food and water prices; and if in poor health, potentially more vulnerable to respiratory problems from poorer air quality, and heat related illness. Those with existing mental health problems may be more likely to suffer stress and anxiety when faced with having to deal with the results of climate change.(3) Dealing with increased flood risk is likely to be particularly traumatic.
4) As well as climate change, oil and gas exploitation have other environmental impacts, particularly if “land based” reserves are exploited which will require unconventional extraction techniques such as fracking, coalbed methane extraction, coal gasification and shale gas extraction. While some of the more lurid stories circulating about the possible impacts of these are extreme cases, they do pose significant risks to groundwater, and there is a risk of leaks of methane gas (which has more effect on climate per molecule than CO2). It is also likely that the gas fields will be dotted with flares to get rid of excess gas, as well as access roads, drilling rigs etc. Renewables also have some environmental impacts, but in general these are not as severe. Unconventional fossil fuel extraction is not adequately regulated or monitored at present. (Ian Taylor’s company is one of these seeking to exploit these technologies!).
5) Fossil fuels are not very efficient energy sources. Burning them to generate electricity is only about 30 % efficient (only about 30 % of the energy in the fuel is converted to electricity).(4)
6) Continuing to base our economy on fossil fuels stifles innovation. We no longer produce cars in Scotland (Linwood no more!), but continuing to use petrol and oil in cars will stop us switching to public transport and electric vehicles which might benefit Scottish manufacturers. Hunslet Barclay in Kilmarnock produce a few diesel locomotives and Alexander Dennis in Falkirk still produce buses. Encouraging renewables would help companies like these to innovate and potentially lead in new markets. Hunslets have produced some electric locos in the past but lack engineers with skills in this, and Alexander Denis are looking at developing electric buses. Scotland could be onto winners here, but not if we don’t invest in them.
7) Fossil fuels can be shipped around the world fairly easily and taken to wherever there is the cheapest workforce. Renewable electricity is less portable, so jobs are more likely to come here as industry moves in to benefit from cheap energy just as the now closed Kinlochleven aluminium smelter brought jobs to the Highlands in the 1950s. There are already plans to locate banks of computer servers close to tidal power generation in the Pentland Firth (5).
We will need to pump oil for a few years yet to fund the transition to more sustainable fuels, but there should be a defined timetable for this. In the longer term there may be some limited demand for fossil fuels for a few specialised applications such as farm vehicles and short distance road haulage where electric vehicles may not be able to supply enough power. However in this fairly small market it might be possible to use non-fossil fuel sources such sustainably sourced biodiesel or gas from biogas digestors (particularly applicable for farm vehicles) instead.
Fossil fuels are undoubtedly part of Scotland’s industrial past, and an important source of income at present, but I contend that to be truly independent and sustainable, and to deliver an economically resilient and socially inclusive Scotland we need to look to other energy sources in the future.
1) Report on Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets by Carbon Tracker, LSE’s Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Prof Nicholas Stern http://carbontracker.live.kiln.it/Unburnable-Carbon-2-Web-Version.pdf and reported in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/19/carbon-bubble-financial-crash-crisis
3) Differential Social Impacts of Climate Change in the UK, SNIFFER http://www.sniffer.org.uk/files/7513/4183/8010/UKCC22_LiteratureReview_web.pdf
4) Scottish Energy Study http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2006/01/19092748/8