Options for Scotland's Gas Future

Lunn, Rebecca (2015) Options for Scotland's Gas Future. [Report]

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Abstract

Scotland is heavily reliant on gas in both the residential and commercial sectors for heating. Natural gas also plays a significant role in electricity generation. Even in the event of an unprecedented decrease in UK gas consumption, a significant quantity would still be required for not only heat, but also as a chemical feedstock for the petrochemical industry. The UK is currently reliant on imports for over 50% of its gas consumption. To meet its future gas needs and increase energy security, local production could be increased either onshore or offshore. Action to reduce demand is also an option, but would need to occur in addition to one or several other options. Scotland is committed to meeting statutory climate change targets and any course of action to address Scotland’s future need for gas must be consistent with these goals as well as addressing energy security, cost to the consumer and public acceptance. If Scotland decides to source more gas domestically, it would have greater control over the introduction of environmental control measures, such as carbon capture and storage, although such action could see gas prices rise. A significant decrease in gas demand would need to occur in the context of demand reduction across the entire energy sector. A course of action that simply reduces consumption of gas by moving heat demand from gas to electricity would serve only to create greater electricity demand, which Scotland would find very difficult to meet. Reducing demand for gas could prove beneficial in numerous ways, including decreasing the use of fossil fuel, lowering the rate of fuel poverty, and by having a positive environmental impact. Such a course of action may prove difficult to undertake, however, due to the prevalence of gas as a heating fuel, the varied and aging housing stock and the cost involved in investing in fuel efficient homes and measures. Importing gas into the UK offers several advantages, including posing little adverse impact to the health, safety and wellbeing of the Scottish public. It results in no obvious local environmental problems and would likely prove cheaper than producing gas domestically. Multiple import options exist for Scotland to meet its energy demand and the UK’s membership of the European Union provides a level of energy security. However, importing gas from abroad leaves Scotland vulnerable to political instability and unforeseen circumstances in the countries from which it imports. Furthermore, relying on production abroad where the Scottish and UK Governments have no control over health and safety standards or environmental controls raises moral questions. Transportation of fuel also results in significant emissions. 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. 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. 1  Offshore development of gas in Scotland would present very few health and wellbeing or environmental issues and would allow Scotland control over all regulation surrounding the industry. The country is accustomed to the nature of offshore production and matters surrounding worker safety are well known. Further development offshore could create jobs and play a role in enhancing Scotland’s gas security of supply. While good safety regulations and oversight are in place for offshore production, it is likely that it would prove less safe to operators than an onshore industry. Very little is currently known about potential new reserves offshore and the considerable government investment that would be required could result in no return. As a result of the increased costs of the offshore industry, in comparison to onshore, it may also prove less economic. It is important that in coming to a decision over Scotland’s gas future the public is correctly informed and given a genuine opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process. The choice should not be imposed on the public from above, nor should it be left to communities to decide whether they wish to host onshore developments on a case by case basis The questions over how Scotland is to move forward in meeting its energy needs must be addressed at a societal level with meaningful public involvement. 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.