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.