Scraping the Barrel

It isn’t surprising that this news of potential improved oil extraction technologies is being treated as evidence of some sort of BBC plot to withhold The Truth before the referendum, but as far as Google News indicates there was no reporting of it anywhere before a few days ago, when it appeared in the oil industry magazine Offshore. Any beef about its timing is really with the team at Heriot-Watt University. But then all they’re doing is announcing a promising line of research—it isn’t as if they’re ready to press the big green button on a whole new production method.

As I said before the referendum, I don’t care if there’s 10-15 years’ worth of oil left or 50, because what we can afford to produce probably isn’t even 10-15 years’ worth. By “we” I don’t mean “we, the people of Scotland”, I mean “we, the human race”. I can’t cordon off my consideration of Scottish independence from the enormous environmental challenges facing us all; I can’t imagine how, knowing what we know now, and facing what we face now, we can possibly continue using fossil fuels at current or increasing rates for decades without paying an unacceptable price as a global civilisation.

A related point—which factored into my own thinking before the vote, but which I didn’t post here on the 17th because I was running out of steam—is that all that lovely oil could turn out to be one big stranded asset, and relatively soon. The carbon divestment movement is gaining pace and renewables are improving so quickly that before long it just won’t be worth building the West Shetland equivalent of Deepwater Horizon:

French investment bank Kepler Chevreux has produced a fascinating analysis that has dramatic implications for the global oil industry. It estimates that $100 billion invested in either wind energy or solar energy—and deployed as energy for light and commercial vehicles—will produce significantly more energy than that same $100 billion invested in oil. ... “If we are right, the implications would be momentous,” writes Kepler Chevreux analyst Mark Lewis. “It would mean that the oil industry faces the risk of stranded assets not only under a scenario of falling oil prices brought about by the structurally lower demand entailed by a future tightening of climate policy, but also under a scenario of rising oil prices brought about by increasingly constrained supply.” (Why $100bn invested in wind or solar will produce more energy than oil.)

I know some would respond that Scotland will be a renewable energy powerhouse exporting electricity to the rest of Europe. A Scottish Government leaflet to that effect came through our letterbox months ago as part of their softening-up of voters before the official referendum campaign. But exporting electricity is a lot harder than exporting oil: you can’t just put it on a ship, you need cables and wires, and because wastage increases with distance you have to send out more of it to reach the far end the further it’s going. Renewable power generation is going to be largely local, using whatever technologies best suit local conditions (wind here, thermal in Iceland, solar in Australia, micro-generation everywhere). Scotland might be able to power the north of England as well as itself, but that will be about it.

When I look 20-30 years ahead, I don’t envisage a world where everything is the same as now except with an independent Scotland more responsive to local democratic demands. I envisage a world where long-distance transport means travelling by ship again, rather than planes; where we have enough local power generation to meet more modest needs—enough to power our computers, phones, whitegoods, and (fingers crossed) electric vehicles and trains for domestic transport—but where globetrotting will once again be the preserve of the richest. In that world, there will be more than political pressure for localisation, there’ll be practical pressure, because goods from elsewhere will be harder to get. That world may well see an independent Scotland for practical reasons, because the south will feel that much further away. So maybe we will end up in Charlie Stross’s post-Westphalia world of large states broken into smaller ones, for those practical reasons. We’ll still be able to wave to each other over the internet, but we won’t be able to visit in person as easily.

In that world, it would be a good idea to keep any new methods of extracting more oil from existing wells for making plastic and similar petroleum derivatives, not least because drilling new deepwater wells to feed our plastic addiction would be horribly uneconomic. This needs only a fraction of what we currently use for fuel: in the US in 2010, “about 2.7% of total U.S. petroleum consumption” and “about 1.7% of total U.S. natural gas consumption” went towards plastics. Would that fraction of current oil demand sustain an independent Scotland?

But that world is one of the better-case scenarios. If we’re to have any hope of getting there, we need to use the best resources we’ve got to make it happen, which aren’t primarily oil and coal, they’re people, working together, in large organisations and in collaborative networks. And that’s one thing the union has given us: a society larger than the sum of its parts, where Scottish minds working with other British minds have produced a great many things of benefit to us all. It’s created institutions that can deliver far more than equivalent institutions from smaller countries.

Take the BBC, subject of much bashing in the past week by people focusing on one narrow part of its output. I don’t rely on the BBC to tell me what I should think about the news, but I do know that the quality of its output in general would be impossible to achieve in an organisation a tenth the size. Name one world-famous series produced by TVNZ. This list might help.

Or think about the research networks between universities across the UK, which would be harder to maintain in a post-independence environment. The Heriot-Watt Centre for Enhanced Oil Recovery could be seen as an example, not of Scottish invention, but of the strength of university research within the UK, and the benefits of sharing the research resources of the entire UK out to the places where they’re most relevant and needed.

Bigger isn’t better for everything, but it’s better for some things, and those things could make a difference to us between now and our post-carbon future.

Adapted from a comment at Metafilter.


A few more links from before the big day, before I move on...

Ewan Morrison: Why I joined Yes and why I changed to No.

Ian Bell: End this dislocated sense of being homeless at home.

A prescient piece by Deborah Orr from January 2012: A no vote in Scotland could leave England begging for mercy.

27 September 2014 · Politics