Leave it in the ground.

I enjoyed a good chuckle this morning over at Wings Over Scotland, who was pointing out how the less level-headed unionists among us, who have been sniggering at us independence supporters for the last couple of years over the “secret oils fields”, have suddenly gone awfully quiet on the subject.  Worth a read if you feel like a laugh.

Staying with the subject of the significant discovery, west of Shetland, I wanted to address this tweet, from West of Scotland Green MSP, Ross Greer.  He tweeted:

“More oil is nothing to celebrate if you’re anything other than an all-out climate change denier.  We can’t burn it.”

On the face of it, it sounds reasonable.  Make no mistake, climate change is real, it’s a threat to humanity, and we need to find a solution that will allow us to either discontinue the use of fossil fuels, or capture the CO² emissions from that use.

That said, Ross’ solution of “we can’t burn it”, or to put it another way, “leave it in the ground”, is no solution at all.  Ok, it was just a tweet, and twitter’s character limit hardly lends itself to setting out your detailed plans for an alternative.  The fact is though that we simply don’t have an alternative yet.

To put things in perspective; the estimated one billion barrels just discovered by Hurricane Energy, while a potentially huge boost to Scotland’s economy (and one I would love to see going into an independent Scotland’s coffers rather than Westminster’s black hole pockets), is really nothing if you look at the big picture of world oil consumption.

The world currently consumes not far off one hundred million barrels of oil every single day.  So the billion barrels just found is enough to feed the world’s needs for approximately ten days, maybe a couple of weeks at most.  Doesn’t look so big when you put it that way does it?  So, that said, what possible difference would it make for Scotland to lose out on the economic benefits of that oil, unless the rest of the world’s oil-producing nations leave theirs in the ground as well?

So what if we did find a consensus with the rest of the world?  That’s it, as of tomorrow, no more producing oil (and coal or gas)?  Well, frankly, we’d have a major problem on our hands.

World energy consumption by source.

Only a tiny fraction of our energy comes from non-fossil fuel sources.  The only possible way we could stop using fossil fuels right now, would be by accepting that we are all taking a nice trip back to the middle ages.  That’s right; no electricity, no vehicles, no modern products or technology.  The only way you’d be getting around would be on foot, or by horse if you were lucky enough to be able to afford one.

But we could have electric cars you say?  Well, no, it’s just not feasible.  Of the roughly 23,000 TWh/year of electricity consumed (2013 figures), about 67.4% is still generated by burning fossil fuels (Coal – 41.3%, Gas – 21.7%, Oil – 4.4%).  Nuclear and combined renewables account for only 10.6% and 5.7% respectively, with hydro accounting for 16.3%.

The fact is that unless we are happy with the medieval option, we need another way to meet our energy demands.  We just don’t have one yet.  Maybe we could build lots of nuclear plants?  Well, not really.  It’s estimated we would need to build around 50,000 new nuclear plants to meet current demand, and energy consumption is expected to rise by about 50% by 2040.  But could we do it?  Well, as a rough estimate, take the expected cost of the UK’s new Hinkley C plant.  £35 billion.  Now multiply that by 50,000.  That’s 1.75 quadrillion dollars.  Is there even that much money in the world?  Even if we could, we still need to fuel our new plants with uranium.  Unfortunately, while we have lots of fossil fuels, there’s relatively little uranium on the planet.  Maybe enough to fuel our 50k plants for ten to twenty years.  So our 1.75 quadrillion dollars only bought us a decade or two.

How about nuclear fusion?  Aha, the holy grail of endless, clean energy.  Sadly, still a long way, and many, many technical hurdles off.

I take climate change seriously.  Anyone who doesn’t is frankly an imbecile (looking at you Mr. Trump).  I sincerely hope we find the solution, and find it soon enough to reverse the damage we have already done.  I’m afraid though, “we can’t burn it” just isn’t a solution yet, unless of course you’re ok with a hard week in the field, trying to grow enough food to survive the year, followed by an ale in a candlelit tavern listening to the travelling troubadours  for entertainment.

Assuming that’s not a terribly attractive proposition, we’re stuck (for now) with doing our best to increase renewables, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels as much as possible.  This we must do as quickly as possible.  We need Scotland to become 100% powered by renewable sources, pioneered by us, and then we need to export that technology to the rest of the world and provide an example of how it is done, and the benefits.  We are right up there with the leading countries in the world in that endeavour.  In the meantime, those oil revenues should be going to Scotland, not London.


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