In less than a week, on September 18th, an estimated 80-90 percent of Scottish voters (including those 16 or older for this vote), will decide whether to separate from their treaty partnership with the rest of Great Britain. This partnership was created by the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England.
First a few words on why I’m commenting on the Scottish vote. My wife is Scottish, her family is all in Scotland except for a wayward brother who defected to England, and my wife and I are new property owners (a flat) in East Kilbride. Besides, it’s a fascinating subject (how often do you see the chance for a new country to appear on the global scene) and the energy questions are central to separation considerations.
I will also concede up front that I don’t think the decision to separate (a Yes vote) or not separate (a No vote) is an easy one, given the many uncertainties that will ensue, and the lack of what I consider adequate information provided by either the Scottish Government (Yes) and the ‘unionists’ (No). The latter group includes the Cameron government in London.
What is the current energy situation in Scotland? Nuclear power provides about a third of Scottish electricity, renewables about a third, a quarter from coal, 8% from gas and just under 3% from oil and other sources. Scotland continues to produce more energy than it uses, with more than a quarter of electricity generated being exported. And the Scottish government says it is on course for half of electricity use to come from renewable sources by 2015, an interim target ahead of the goal of having renewables generate 100% of the county’s electricity by 2020.
The energy issue for Scotland seems to be two-fold: do they have enough energy to go it alone and are the oil and gas reserves that would remain with an independent Scotland provide enough revenue, via exports to other countries , to pay off Scotland’s share of the UK’s current national debt and finance Scotland’s ambitious national plans. Those plans include the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund, modeled after Norway’s, that will allow sharing of the benefits of Scotland’s current fossil fuel exports with future generations.
There seems to be little doubt that Scotland has the renewable energy resources to meet its ambitious 2020 electricity goal, if not in 2020 then shortly thereafter, if the necessary investments can be made. These resources include the largest wind resources in the European region, both onshore and offshore, hydropower, significant wave energy resources, and other renewable resources that can contribute such as biomass and tidal energy. The real issue seems to be oil reserves off both the eastern and western coasts of Scotland – how big are they and how long will they last?
This is where the debate gets interesting. Scottish oil off the eastern coast, from the North Sea, has been an energy mainstay for many years, but how much of that oil is left to recover is in dispute. London says 16 billion barrels, Edinburgh says 24. The reality is that nobody really knows, and much depends on the application of improved technologies that have increased recovery beyond initial estimates in several of the world’s oil reservoirs. The other wild card is oil to be found off Scotland’s western coast where exploratory wells are few and far between – only 20 to date. Published estimates vary from little to a massive potential find that could make Scotland one of the world’s major oil producers. An intriguing aspect of Scotland’s offshore oil potential is the additional possibility of offshore fracking – some of the underwater shale resources resemble shale plays in the U.S. that have been successfully fracked for both oil and gas.
It is only in recent weeks that the Yes votes seem to to outnumber the No votes, with a significant and determining share of Scottish voters saying they are still undecided. We will find out shortly, but no matter which way the vote goes there will be years of uncertainty ahead for Scotland as they negotiate with England, and with the European Union for membership if the Yes voters prevail.
My own view, which has no bearing on the vote, is that Scotland should go for it. Such an opportunity comes along rarely, and certainly wouldn’t again for many years if the vote is No. The energy resources seem to be there and Scotland is a highly educated and innovative country. It has contributed much to the world in the past and has the potential to contribute much more in the future. Keep in mind that in addition to their contribution of Scottish whiskey, the Scottish Enlightenment provided the basic ideas of the American Revolution, the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, a Scot, two major industries were invented by Scots (steel and asphalt/macadam), and in scientific fields the Scots have always played a major role (e.g., see ‘The Mark of the Scots’ by Duncan A. Bruce). Not too shabby!