Will the UK really run out of oil in five years, coal in four and gas in three?

16th May 2014 by The Harried House Hunter

Today has seen an eye-catching article by the BBC website on the UK’s energy situation which challenges more than a few assumptions made about it. If true it would have an extraordinary impact on both our economy and our lives so let us get straight to it.

In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned.

That is a very different picture to the one we have been presented with and if true would also have considerable implications for the debate about independence for Scotland. We have already seen considerable debate between the two sides as to the size of the oil and gas reserves in the North Sea but this is by far the lowest estimate that I can recall.

We do get a more detailed estimate of the state of play which is based on research from the Global Sustainability Institute at East Anglia University.

By contrast, Britain has just 5.2 years of oil, 4.5 years of coal and three years of its own gas remaining.

These numbers seemed remarkably short to me especially for a country whose coal reserves have been estimated to be in the decades if not hundreds of years. So I decided to investigate further.

UK energy reserves

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has forecast production for the UK up to 2019 and for example it still has us producing gas in 2019 at the end of its forecast horizon. This is two years further than when supplies are supposed to run out! Actually we expect gas production to continue at pretty much the same rate each year until 2019 and then for it to decline at 5% per annum. In terms of perspective our production will be approximately one third of the peak achieved in 2000 of just over 40 billion therms. Of course this is an estimate but it is already looking very different to the claims above.If we move to the situation concerning our oil reserves then the situation looks similar where production is assumed to carry on rather than falling off a grand cliff in five years time.

If we move to the situation concerning coal then let me quote this from the University of Durham from a research report from June 2010.

After centuries of mining, up to three quarters of the UK’s original coal resources still remain underground.

Long after its gas and oil reserves have been exhausted, the UK will still have large onshore and offshore coal reserves,

As you can see some of this is dependent on new technology but there are parts of the world where it is already being used.

UCG opens up the prospect of accessing trillions of tonnes of otherwise unmineable coal…..If developed appropriately, UCG coupled to CCS has the potential to allow us to keep the lights on over the intervening decades.

If we move to the reserves of coal that we believe we have without new technologies then the UK Coal Authority estimated these at 4,575 million tonnes in February 2013. This sounds an enormous amount and far more than four and a half years worth. As we review that we consumed some 64.9 million tonnes in 2012 acording to the UK government then we appear to have around 70 years worth of proveable reserves left. If we consider the new technology discussed above it seems sensible to believe that we have a lot more than that although of course some of this reflects hope as well as fact.

Scotland and the independence debate

As I pointed out earlier the claims of the Global Research Institute if true have considerable implications for the debate about Scottish independence as an important issue in the debate is the size of Scotland’s oil and gas reserves. It seems to have shrunk them way below what either side has suggested they are.

However in February Channel 4’s Factcheck was much more optimistic than this.

In a report last year, the industry group Oil and Gas UK estimated that there are still 15 to 24 billion barrels of oil and gas in the North Sea. Sir Ian Wood’s review of the North Sea industry today takes 12 billion barrels as the likely low extreme and, again, 24 billion barrels as the high.

According to the former report we will (or perhaps an independent Scotland) will still be a substantial producer in 2020.

The UK’s Continental Shelf has the potential to fulfil 50% of the UK’s oil and gas demand in 2020.

Also they point out this.

Yet significant volumes continue to be found

This sort of analysis estimates that some 30-40 years of production remain and as this can be found being broadcast by the BBC they might have been at least a little curious how in the case of gas this has apparently shrunk to 3 years?!

How has this happened?

The Global Sustainability Institute kindly provided me with a link to their report and as we review their assumptions we do see what has taken place.

The units used are “years left” i.e. how many years of internal oil consumption (at the current rate) could be provided for by existing reserves. This figure is arrived at by dividing total reserves by consumption per year.

As you can see this is not saying that we will run out of oil in 5.2 years time but that we would do so if we only used our own UK reserves. Next we have the issue about what data you choose.

The most recent data used in creating these maps is from 2010.

To be fair to them they do highlight the most obvious change since then.

The situation since then has changed with the development of shale oil production in the USA, which has effected its dependence on overseas suppliers.

This has of course changed the UK situation too. Views differ as to whether we should move forwards on fracking in the UK but it is clear that there are reserves of oil and gas available from this route should we choose to take it. Indeed there is a confession of this fact tucked away in the release.

The UK’s “years left” figure may increase as a result of the development of hydraulic fracturing.

So we only have three years of gas production left if we ignore our largest source of reserves?! At this point it is hard to choose between laughing and crying.


There is a whole range of ducks waiting to be gunned down in this particular shooting gallery. If we start at the collective level then the Peak Oil issue which can be traced back to the mid-1950s raises an obvious problem as oil is still with us and will be for some time. One day it will run out but new technology and new discoveries have kept us going so far at least.

Next we have the issue of the abuse of statistics which is most prevalent in the media. By far the weakest claim in the headline published by the BBC is that we will use up all our coal in 4.5 years. Surely its “environment analyst Roger Harrabin” must have questioned this himself as it is enormously different from past estimates? This is on my mind today as this week has seen news at The Royal Statistical Society about another “Inflation Measurement Review”! It is starting to feel rather like Ireland’s experience on voting on the Maastricht Treaty. Keep going until you finally get the “right” answer…

The worst past of any misinformation or indeed disinformation is that it is about a subject that is frankly a shambles in the UK. All our major political parties dithered and dallied about the need for new nuclear reactors meaning that we have done our best to maximise the price we will pay for electricity from them. Meanwhile we took out of service functioning power stations meaning that our safety margin is thin and would be likely to disappear should next winter be a hard one. These days there are a lot of categories jostling for the position of having seen the most political and official incompetence but few have seen so much of it as our energy situation.

24 thoughts on “Will the UK really run out of oil in five years, coal in four and gas in three?”

  1. dutch says:

    Without getting all political…..which obviously means I’m going to,this seems like the sort of release you get before big govt comes to sell your pension fund some offshore wind farms futures Brussels has told them they’ve got to issue.

    1. Anonymous says:

      That or they are prepping us for an announcement on new nuclear reactors ….

      1. Anonymous says:

        Hi ExpatInBG

        It seems you may have been rather prescient in your choice of country.

        “with Bulgaria having 34 years of coal left.”

        If that is as accurate as the other data in the report then it will be more like 300 years…

        1. Anonymous says:

          In 1994 a friend’s friend & geology grad went to West Germany. He’d been taught the communist supplied Bulgaria maps were a state secret, imagine his surprise to find better maps on sale in an ordinary book store.

          Any Bulgarian coal reserve numbers want a large error margin – whatever source that report used.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Hi Dutch

      Critiques of our political class are fine! Also I knew that there were hints of this in the article itself in spite of the fact that the BBC has re-written it!

      Anyway this bit seems unchanged.

      “Professor Anderson said: “Coal, oil and gas resources in Europe are running down and we need alternatives.

      “The UK urgently needs to be part of a Europe-wide drive to expand renewable energy sources such as wave, wind, tidal, and solar power.”

  2. just a thought says:

    Hi Shaun,

    Two main themes on your blog today, the very sensitive energy situation of the UK and the blatantly biased propaganda organ of what had become the BBC: a mere tabloid.

    Think for yourself! Read everything, listen to everything, but believe nothing no matter where you read it or who said it, not even if I said it, until you’ve researched it yourself and it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense!- Gautama

    I am glad to the development of the Internet and the rise of alternative media where much relevant and accurate information can be found and to follow independent observers such as yourself as well as critical thinkers commenting on blogs such as yours.

    Japan plans to have a power plant in space in a decade…


    1. Anonymous says:

      Amazing, thanks for the link.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Hi Just a thought

      Thanks for the link, I did enjoy the reply from someone who had seen the idea in Futurama! Actually I think I recall Arthur C Clarke suggesting some of the ideas in play here.

      If there is a weak link it is the idea of the tether, It had better work as I suspect that none of us want to be in the focus of that microwave beam.

  3. Anonymous says:

    UCG – Bill Bryson writes about burning coal mines, when they play with coal underground – the engineers in charge are doing lots of guess work. They take risks and subsequent problems are a surprise.

    Coal extraction has proved a dangerous business for miners. It has also blighted many towns with subsidence or even wiped them off the map in open cast mining. Coal is very dirty and bad for the environment.

    It is a big and urgent question how we power our society going forward. Nuclear fusion is on a back burner – always another 40 years away. I’d recommend adding some urgency to this research.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Hi ExpatInBG

      I hope that engineers and physicist are researching thorium too.I have watched many of Professor Jim Al-Khallili’s documentaries on BBC 4 ( The Atom, The Elements etc..) and was quite struck bu his remark that he and colleagues studied thorium some 20/25 years ago then everybody seemed to forget it.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Yes, another underfunded scientific project. Our useless politicians waste incredible sums on useless agricultural subsidies, worthless bank subsidies, counterproductive solar subsidies, CO2 emitting Strasburg trips etc.

        With resources and determination, human ingenuity is amazing. The Manhattan project delivered in under 5 years. JFK’s moon shot was realised within the decade. With leadership, energy is a solvable problem

  4. forbin says:

    Hello Shaun,

    we can all see that for oil world wide that the price has remained in the 100$ plus range through what is considered the worse economic recession since the 30’s

    Also ref: ” …The units used are “years left” i.e. how many years of internal oil
    consumption (at the current rate) could be provided for by existing
    reserves. ..”

    The words “at the current rate ” are the ones that mean NO GROWTH , and wel all know thats poppy cock !

    I read that the “Limits to Growth” was revised but even still the timeing for all the major issues was 2010 , hmm, I suggest we wait until 2015 , something is up and its probably the oil price 😉

    Just a thought has it correct – think for yourself and check the web

    Just today we see the HMG are renageing on Solar power , in itself it won’t solve the problems

    oh Shaun , can we afford to import all our oil ,coal and gas? Oil itself I think was predicted to cost 25billion by 2015………. yikes !

    No worries we’ll just QE it ….


    1. Anonymous says:

      Hi Forbin

      You pointed out a while ago the way the oil price seemed tightly fixed to US $108 per barrel (Brent Crude) and as of Friday it was US $109.75.

  5. John says:


    Good post, and you hit on the obvious relevance for the Scottish referendum.

    There are two points here. The first is that the figures for our oil reserves are simply not credible – the UK consumes around 1.7 million barrels a day, say 600 million barrels a year, which implies that Anglia Ruskin think the North Sea has just over 3 billion barrels left. No-one in the industry pitches the figure that low, or even close, and the Anglia Ruskin report gives no evidence to back their figures up.

    Secondly, the BBC report is about the most shoddy journalism I have seen for a long time – sensationalist and totally unchallenging of some frankly very odd claims. Is there nobody at the BBC who notices that this is so much lower than their own figures – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26326117 .


    1. Anonymous says:

      Hi John

      Thank you and welcome to my part of the blogosphere.

      The bit that was the least credible was the claim about our coal reserves which contradicted pretty much everything I have ever read on the subject. As to the BBC it has now rewritten much of the article which I presumed happened after the majority of people read it. Whilst I am a fan of correcting errors there is also the danger of rewriting history.

  6. therrawbuzzin says:

    This is not new conduct. by either the climate Ayatollah Harrabin, or the disgraceful BBC.

    Obviously, how much oil is extracted from the North Sea depends upon how financially efficient it is to do so, and the major defining factor in this is the price of oil itself.

    The BBC bangs on about the OBR’s forecasts for oil revenues, and will not, despite prodding, publish the DECC’s forecast for oil prices alongside the OBR’s. (The DECC’s forecast for oil prices is almost 50% higher)


    The BBC knows, full well that there are 40 years of oil supply from the North Sea, and who knows how much west of Shetland?


    There are 2.4m homes in Scotland, and the BBC stands to lose £350m in licence fees in the event of Scottish independence, and is ignoring its charter with the collusion of the UK govt. and stonewalling any complaints about its behaviour.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Hi therrawbuzzin

      You are entirely right to point out that an estimate of reserves depends on the price of it. Furthermore as the reserves fall the price is likely to rise leading to the likelihood of more reserves being found or being economic to exploit. Of course that assumes an element of free markets which is a moot point at this time.

      You may enjoy this from the carbon brief.

      “It turns out that the UK has been ‘running out’ of oil for decades. In fact, the UK has had much less than 15 years of oil reserves remaining for the past 30 years”

      1. therrawbuzzin says:


        1. therrawbuzzin says:

          Eventually it will not be financial efficiency which will determine recoverability, but energy efficiency.

  7. col says:

    Electricity from the tides? There are plans afoot to build a tidal lagoon in
    Swansea Bay which claims it would power over 100k houses in Swansea.
    Will it happen? Strange how some renewables are favoured eg wind….so why not tides – power twice a day for the forseeable future! Also, they provide jobs, leisure facilities, can reduce erosion and control flooding. They can be built quickly compared to Nuclear … 2 years rather than 10. So a relatively modest outlay (Swansea £850M) with a quick return is more likely to be funded privately (vs £10B for Nuclear) … I quite fancy a few shares in a lagoon fund!

    1. Anonymous says:


      Tidal power is commercially viable. Unfortunately it can only supply a small fraction of Britain’s electricity demand.

  8. Anonymous says:

    so it is not true? what a surpise

  9. Laughing Gnome says:

    Good post.
    I feel sure the BBC was worthy of respect once. Maybe I have just become more cynical?

  10. col says:

    South Korea is building a Tidal Barrage (800MW) – completion 2015. It proposes a further Tidal Barrage (1300MW) to start 2017. China is building them too.
    The Swansea Bay lagoon should produce 400MW and is considered a SMALL lagoon.
    Professor Roger Falconer (Director of the Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University) wrote that a combination of a Severn Barrage
    and Lagoons around Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, Towyn, Rhyl and Prestatyn
    could provide most of Wales electricity needs, protection against
    coastal erosion and rising sea levels.
    From a supplement of the Western Mail.

    A Somerset Levels lagoon could provide power and sort the flooding problem.
    Then there’s the Mersey, Morecambe Bay, the Clyde…..

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