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House of Commons ECC Committee: UK's Energy Supply: security or independence?

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee's report on energy security was published on 25 October 2011. You can download a PDF of the report below, and  read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission.

House of Commons ECC Committee's report on energy security 

Submitted 4 April 2011

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.
  2. To address directly many of the specific questions which the committee has set out in its call for evidence is outside the competence of the Geological Society. However, geological considerations inform many of the issues raised. In particular, Earth science expertise and industry are fundamental to understanding the nature and geographic location of most of the natural resources on which we depend for our energy, and to their efficient and least environmentally damaging extraction. Earth science will also be essential to mitigating the impacts of natural hazards on energy security. With this in mind, we offer here some general comments which may be helpful in setting the scene for the committee’s discussions. If the committee is interested in pursuing any of the issues raised below, we would be pleased to offer more detailed evidence, or to discuss other ways in which the Earth science community might help.
  3. Implicit in the call for evidence is the observation that energy security is broader than simple energy independence. In considering the current security of UK energy supplies, and their future resilience, it is therefore important to consider not only domestic resources, but also those from other countries and regions, and the possible risks to supply of various resources from these regions. (Such risks are generally much lower within the EU, for instance.) There is a balance to be struck in mitigating these risks, in the context of uncertainty about future market conditions, between developing domestic production (where there is significant but limited potential) and shaping the mix of imported energy. Diversity of supply, both in terms of resource type and its provenance, will tend to reduce the potential impact of interruption to any one resource stream. Security of energy supply can thus be seen as reflecting the interplay between geology (and other physical factors, e.g. levels of insolation with respect to solar energy), economics and geopolitics. The well established sub-discipline of economic geology has an important role to play in understanding these interactions. A key concept is the distinction between resources (the total amount in the ground) and reserves (the amount of a resource which can economically be extracted with current technology and under current regulatory regimes) – measures of which are dynamic, and depend crucially on prices. In practice, reserves are only viable if they can be exploited in an environmentally and socially acceptable way.
  4. Most of the resources on which we rely for energy come from the ground, and their discovery and production depend on Earth science. The majority of our energy needs are currently met by fossil fuels, and despite the recognised need to move to a low carbon economy, we will continue to rely on them for many years. Nuclear energy depends on the supply of uranium. Geothermal energy in its strict sense, as well as energy from ground source heat pumps, also depends on geological phenomena and understanding. 
  5. Domestic UK resources can make a significant contribution to our energy mix. The main resources available to us are hydrocarbons, particularly coal (surface and underground mining, as well as in situ underground gasification) and gas (including coal bed methane and shale gas – see the Geological Society’s submission on the latter for further details). There is considerable potential for further extraction of North Sea oil and gas, with EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery) a potentially attractive option especially if deployed in conjunction with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) (see below), though development of these resources will depend in part on stability of the tax regime, and may be jeopardised by the £2bn levy on North Sea producers announced in the budget. Further exploration of deep water areas of the UK continental shelf may yield significant new resources – a field in which BP is a world leader, notwithstanding the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010. Ground source heat pumps might make a noticeable contribution, as might geothermal energy sensu stricto in a few locations. Whether particular resources can in practice be exploited depends not only on geology, but also on economic factors, and on environmental and societal acceptability (which has historically prevented the extraction of significant uranium resources in Orkney, for instance). 
  6. The need to move to a low-carbon economy, and to meet other environmental and societal requirements, should not be seen as being in tension with energy security. Rather, they are inseparable aspects of sustainable energy supply and usage. To assess the contribution which a resource stream might make to meeting our energy needs without considering its impact on carbon emissions is meaningless. Given our inevitable continuing reliance on fossil fuels, the rapid deployment of CCS at commercial scale is a critical national need. The UK is well positioned to be a world leader in the development and deployment of CCS, thanks to the outstanding fusion of our academic and industrial petroleum geoscience, not least through the meetings and publications of the Geological Society. The skills, capacity and infrastructure inherent in the North Sea oil and gas industry are extraordinarily valuable assets in this regard. The Earth science community is confident in its abilities to meet the challenges of the injection and long-term storage of carbon dioxide, and with the right regulatory framework to develop a UK CCS industry on the scale of the North Sea hydrocarbons extraction industry of the past four decades. 
  7. Globally, coal is far more abundant than gas, and is also more evenly distributed round the planet. Crucially, coal is not concentrated in the Middle East. Together with known domestic resources, this makes coal a particularly attractive energy source for UK energy security, given rapid and widespread CCS deployment. Gas is considerably cleaner than coal, with carbon emissions typically 40-50% lower, but it will still be impossible to meet future carbon emission reduction targets if gas is widely used without CCS in place. As noted above, EOR has the potential to extend the productivity of North Sea oil fields – one means of enhancing recovery is in combination with CCS, essentially displacing the oil with injected CO2 captured from fossil fuel combustion, which would then be stored in the reservoir.
  8. The concept of energy security at a local (sub-national) level may be helpful in addressing public concerns over the environmental and societal acceptability of energy projects. As noted in our supplementary evidence to the committee’s Shale Gas inquiry, following the oral evidence session, there is a tendency for communities to see such projects as delivering ‘someone else’s energy’. If they are seen instead as supplying local needs, and as contributing to the energy security of an area, they are more likely to gain acceptance.
  9. The secure supply of energy, whether from UK or overseas resources, depends on an understanding of the geosphere in a number of other important respects. These include infrastructure planning, particularly in the coastal zone (for instance with regard to the development of nuclear power stations, where predicted sea-level rise associated with climate change must be taken into account in their design for use and subsequent decommissioning), and construction of onshore and offshore facilities including wind turbines.
  10. An important aspect of ensuring energy security is to consider and mitigate possible impacts of natural hazards on the supply of energy. The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan have highlighted this concern. While the UK is not vulnerable to earthquakes of such magnitude, it might be affected by tsunamis triggered by events elsewhere in the world. We can quantify tsunami effects in the recent British geological record. For instance, that which hit Scotland 8000 years ago, triggered by the Storegga landslide off Norway, was around 25 metres high. More recently, the tsunami following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was several metres high when it reached the southwest of England. Independent of the means of electricity generation, the national grid is vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, which are expected to become more frequent as the sun enters a more active phase of its cycle. The prediction of these storms, and possible means of mitigating their effects, are the subject of active research. 
  11. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.