Scotland’s bright green renewables future requires shale gas for secure energy supply

Cuadrilla operations photoShale gas; It’s complicated. It’s safe. The people should decide (if they can trust the scientific facts and evidence – and if the people can also be trusted not to become NIMBYs ) – and Scotland is going to need gas to provide back-up electricity when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

That – in a nutshell – is the summary of an influential study on shale in the ‘Options For Scotland’s Gas Future’ report published by The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The report by the RSE – Scotland’s National Academy – follows a Scottish Government announcement in January of a temporary moratorium on unconventional gas development, including the use of fracking, to allow for a national debate.

Lead author and RSE Fellow Professor Rebecca Lunn said: “It is imperative that we consider the wider issue of how Scotland, as part of the UK, will meet demand for the gas required to heat homes and supply industry over the coming decades.

“We should not let the debate focus narrowly on unconventional gas or hydraulic fracturing. There are no easy solutions when it comes to supplying our energy needs; local impacts must be weighed up against national issues of energy security, carbon emissions and social justice.” 

Royal Society of EdinburghThe RSE report states:

Onshore production of unconventional gas would allow Scotland control over all regulation surrounding extraction and production.

The impact of unconventional gas production on the environment is considered to be comparable to conventional gas. The areas of health, wellbeing and safety surrounding an onshore industry do not appear to present significant risks, although a degree of uncertainty is present.

Domestic production onshore could improve energy security, create jobs and ensure Scotland takes responsibility for its energy consumption.

But public opinion relating to onshore unconventional gas development, particularly surrounding safety, in Scotland is often negative and this could make developing an industry difficult. The characteristics of onshore production are notably different from the offshore industry with which the country is familiar.

Increased traffic and noise and light pollution occur during early stages of development. Considerable uncertainty exists over potential reserves of unconventional gas, meaning the significant government expenditure that would be required to kick-start a fledgling industry could be for nought.

However, the RSE believes that questions surrounding the development of an unconventional gas industry in Scotland cannot be viewed in isolation.

The country is heavily reliant on gas to heat the majority of its homes and more than half of total energy consumption in Scotland can be accounted for by non-electrical heat demand.

If the Scottish Government succeeds in its aim of largely decarbonising the heat system by 2050, this would still mean both households and businesses will be reliant on gas for heating over the next several decades.

Scotland, as part of the UK, is also part of the EU single market in energy,with its common policies, rules and security of supply arrangements.

A considerable degree of uncertainty surrounds much of the debate and a reduction in this uncertainty, particularly in relation to onshore and offshore resources and reserves would enable the decision-making process to be better informed.

A source will be required to meet the UK’s demand for gas – whether this is shale gas, coal-bed methane or it is supplied by conventional production.

Within the present constitutional arrangements in the UK, policies may be developed that allow for different choices between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

However, if Scotland decides that it does not wish to develop an unconventional gas industry it will need to address which of the other available options it will pursue.

The RSE also notes that natural gas is vital as a chemical feedstock for the Scottish petrochemical industry and will continue to be required irrespective of a reduction in gas demand for heating. The Grangemouth refinery, operated by INEOS, is the largest petrochemical plant in the country and produces around one million tonnes of chemical product per year.

These chemicals are necessary in the manufacture of essential items including plastics and medicines that underpin various aspects of everyday life.

Community engagement will be an important aspect of the discussion surrounding Scotland’s future options for gas.

Too much of the debate has focussed on financial benefits to local areas, rather than on empowering and educating citizens to allow them to become informed decision-makers.

At the same time, it is of concern that while communities may be given local ‘veto’ powers to decide on local development of gas, they will be asked to use these without considering the greater context of Scotland’s energy needs and without having a say on the other options available.

If the majority of new electricity capacity in Scotland comes from renewables, as is the aim of the Scottish Government, it must be noted that these sources can produce only intermittently depending on uncontrollable weather conditions.

Thus, fossil fuels, interconnectors to the rest of the UK or continental Europe, and/or energy storage schemes will be required as back-up for when demand cannot be met.

In addition, intermittent supplies cause significant as yet unsolved issues around grid stability.

A significant amount of gas is used in Scotland to generate electricity. In 2013, 10%of electricity in Scotland was produced by gas, with 35% from nuclear, 20% from coal, 1% from oil and 33% from renewables.

Scotland’s only two nuclear power stations are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2023 and the Scottish Government has taken the position that no new nuclear plants will be built.

This, coupled with the closure of coal-powered stations, is likely to alter Scotland’s position from a net exporter of electricity to a net importer, even if electricity demand remains at current levels.

Furthermore, gas production from the North Sea has been steadily decreasing over the past decade from 50million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2004 to just 16mtoe in 2013.

Although no position is taken on which route Scotland should follow, the Royal Society of Edinburgh does make the following two recommendations:

 1) The Scottish Government should consider investing funds to reduce the areas of large uncertainty, notably those surrounding health impacts and potential reserves.

 2) Public participatory decision-making should be used in reaching a verdict on which option,or options, Scotland takes forward.

 Andrew Austin, Chief Executive of IGas – which includes Dart Energy – said: “As an industry we listen to public concerns and work closely with the communities in which we operate while working to minimise environmental impacts.

“A number of independent experts have concluded that this is a well regulated industry where both environmental and health risks are low and can be managed.

“Scotland has been and continues to be an energy pioneer and onshore oil and gas will continue to bring significant economic benefits. Scotland relies on gas for both jobs and energy. Employment is both direct in gas production and dependent on gas as a raw material.”

 

COMMENT:

The Royal Society of Edinburgh report on Scotland’s gas options goes round in circles to back where it started from, eg; –

Shale gas; It’s complicated. It’s safe. The people should decide (if they can trust the scientific facts and evidence –  and if the people can also be trusted not to become NIMBYs ) – and Scotland is going to need gas to provide back-up electricity when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

The Society succinctly summarises the key policy and political variables.

But the Society then ducks the political big issue by (naively) suggesting ‘participatory’ decision-making is the way the people should decide on well-by-well shale gas applications.

This is naïve because it is a recipe for mass NIMBYism, where one community after another is simply likely to vote ‘Not In My Backyard’ against shale development.

Whilst the voters can never be wrong, they can be presented with groundless facts and information – or worse – mis-representation. So no government – whose second duty after ensuring the safety of its citizens – is to keep them warm and healthy – can afford to let an uninformed tail wag the energy security-of-supply dog.

And that is why Scottish Energy News – in collaboration with the Scottish Energy Association – is holding the UK Shale Energy 2015 Conference in Glasgow later this year – ie to present the facts and to encourage (informed) participatory public decision-making.

For more information and booking details: – http://goo.gl/hrEzOi

See also:

Shale and Safety: Get the fracking facts right from the Royal Society of Edinburgh –  http://goo.gl/BMO6Xp

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