The future of the North Sea oil and gas industry has been central to the debate about how Scotland should respond to the climate crisis.
Calls to restrict exploration of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea have been made by the Scottish Greens and Scottish Labour, while the Scottish Government has said there should be a presumption against new exploration for oil and gas.
Critics have suggested that stopping new oil and gas exploration will actually increase emissions. One such critic is former minister Fergus Ewing, who spoke in the Scottish Parliament in April about the proposed drilling of the Rosebank oil and gas field near Shetland.
Ferret Fact Service looked at these claims and found them Mostly False.
What are the carbon emissions from Scottish oil and gas?
Greenhouse gas emissions from producing oil and gas in the North Sea in 2021 stood at 14.3 million tonnes of CO2e of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2), which is a reduction of overall reduction of 21.5 per cent since 2018.
The UK’s North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), which licences and regulates North Sea energy, put the decrease down to the disruption caused by Covid-19, together with industry decarbonising efforts and an overall drop in production for delayed maintenance work.
But emissions from production are only one part of the climate impacts from drilling oil and gas in the North Sea. The NSTA’s figures do not include the emissions caused by burning the oil and gas produced from the North Sea for energy.
These are not considered as part of the UK’s emissions unless they are emitted in the country. Around 90 per cent of global carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels.
How much oil and gas is Scotland producing?
Scotland’s oil and gas production has reduced significantly over the last 20 years. In 2001, the equivalent of 170.7 million tonnes of oil and gas (mtoe) was produced, while the latest published statistics for 2021 show that 65.1 mtoe came from Scotland’s North Sea sector. However, production in Scotland was higher in 2021 than in 2014 after investment in the development of new and existing fields.
Scotland’s energy minister, Michael Matheson, told MSPs in January 2023 that North Sea oil and gas production will “effectively end” in the next 20 years.
Will Scotland need to rely on oil and gas for decades?
Scotland is still very reliant on oil and gas for energy. In 2020, oil and gas made up 77.6 per cent of all Scottish energy consumption.
Scotland’s electricity supply has been decarbonised to a greater extent. In the year up to December 2022, the equivalent of 82.3 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption came from renewable and low carbon sources.
In 2021, 24 per cent of Scotland’s total energy consumption equivalent came from renewables, decreasing from 26.4 per cent in 2020. The 2021 figure is 13.2 percentage points higher than 2012.
Scotland’s climate plan wants 50 per cent of Scotland’s energy consumption to be provided by renewables by 2030.
It is fair to say that based on current climate targets, Scotland will still need fossil fuels in the future.
However the amount of oil and gas in Scotland’s energy mix will reduce year-on-year as it progresses towards its target of achieving net zero by 2045.
Production in the North sea oil basin is expected to have dropped dramatically by 2050 regardless of government policies. This is because reserves of oil and gas off the UK coast will have largely been used up by then.
Is foreign oil and gas produced with higher carbon emissions than Scotland?
It is true that oil and gas produced in different areas of the world can have different levels of production emissions.
Imported gas from abroad often needs to be converted to liquified natural gas (LNG), which has a higher carbon emission intensity than gas produced in the UK. However, the emission intensity of the UK’s gas production is higher than pipeline imports from the Netherlands and Norway, according to the NSTA. This is due to stricter regulations on production emissions and reduced impacts from pipeline imports compared to LNG.
Ewing’s claim that the US gas has significantly higher emissions intensity than the UK’s production is accurate, but the UK imports the vast majority of its gas from Norway. Of the £19.6bn of gas imported in 2021, £14.5bn came from Norway, while £1.1bn came from the US.
Why can’t Scotland just use its own oil and gas?
Despite being one of Europe’s biggest oil and gas producers, Scotland and the UK imports a significant amount of energy from abroad.
About 11 per cent of oil and gas production in the North Sea is used domestically, with more than 80 per cent exported.
The offshore oil and gas industry is regulated by the UK Government, but it is privatised so revenues are not controlled by the state.
Once fields are licensed, they are owned by the licence holder who can then sell the oil and gas they produce to the highest bidder. Scotland is a net exporter of oil and gas.
Will stopping new oil and gas make climate change worse?
The suggestion that stopping new gas development in Scotland would make climate change worse is misleading.
Climate experts argue that licensing any new oil and gas projects will stop the world from being able to achieve net zero, and to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius – the aim of the Paris climate agreement.
A 2022 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that globally “projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the lifetime of existing and currently planned fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement exceed the total cumulative net CO2 emissions in pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C”.
In March 2023, more than 700 scientists signed a letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak urging him to prevent any new oil and gas field developments.
The Rosebank field would have the potential to produce between 300 and 500 million barrels of oil equivalent. It is the UK’s biggest undeveloped oil and gas field.
However, much of this would be sold overseas, and contribute to climate change across the world.
An analysis by Uplift of the emissions statements provided by Equinor found that likely emissions from oil production alone would push the UK over its carbon budgets from 2028 onwards. This was challenged by the North Sea Transition Authority, which said: “New oil and gas fields in the North Sea can absolutely be in keeping with the UK’s commitment to net zero.”
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False
It is true that importing gas from abroad can produce more emissions than domestic supply. However some countries produce oil and gas with fewer emissions than the UK.
Most North Sea oil and gas is also exported to other countries around the world, so an increase in production off the UK coast would not necessarily mean we are considerably less reliant on imports from abroad.
Scientists agree that any new oil and gas production, regardless of where it takes place, would have a detrimental effect on global and UK attempts to reduce climate change impacts and limit warming to 1.5C, and thus could stop the UK from achieving its climate targets.