One of the big questions for an independent Scotland is how its economy will be able to support a centre-left “social-democratic” style of government. The Yes campaign have played the North Sea oil card for all it is worth – and perhaps more – by claiming that there are as much as 25 billion untapped barrels of oil. However Sir Ian Wood, an industry expert, has stated that the reserves are not greater that 16 billion and this figure has been echoed by BP and Shell top management (http://business.financialpost.com/2014/09/10/oil-chiefs-back-u-k-union-urging-caution-on-north-sea-reserves/?__lsa=5434-7c2e).
It all depends on how you look at the matter (http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-news/9647-scotland-has-potential-oil-windfall-worth-billions-says-ceo). The Woods estimate is of economically extractable oil and takes into account the costs of an ageing infrastructure and has been challenged as an underestimate by other experts. The more optimistic figures include oil fields on the west coast, including those in the Firth of Clyde, the Solway Firth and those such as the Clair Ridge field in deeper water off north-west Scotland (http://www.businessforscotland.co.uk/clair-ridge-and-scotlands-new-oil-boom/).
It is curious is that renewable energy has largely been absent from the debate, although not from this blog. Scotland has been credited with an estimated 25% of all renewable energy resources in the EU. This includes wave and tidal power as well as wind. Recently the Scottish government has announced a £20 million fund for subsidising community-owned, i.e. local, wind power developments (http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2360712/scotland-offers-boost-to-community-wind-turbines). On the debit side, an independent Scotland risks losing over £500 million subsidies from the UK earmarked for the development of renewable energy resources (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/22/scotland-independence-cost-billions-renewables).
A recent review from the Auditor General of Scotland provides a more detailed analysis of renewable resources . The conclusions is that the Scottish government is slipping from its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020 (surprise, surprise!) but that it is none the less making ambitious and realistic progress (http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/central/2013/nr_130912_renewable_energy.pdf).
To realise the full economic potential of renewable energy the legal framework for land-based and offshore generators and transmission infrastructure will need to be revised to decrease the penalties for generation at a distance from the areas of consumption. The Scottish government has already the responsibility for land reform but licenses for offshore installations are currently the responsibility of the Crown Estate, a Westminster agency. Transfer of the Crown Estate responsibilities to local authorities in Scotland has been proposed but making control over the shoreline a responsibility of the national government makes more sense.
The engineering needed for the exploitation of renewable resources is closely related to the kinds of challenges already commonplace for offshore activities and is already well supported by Scottish engineering and services, centred on the city of Aberdeen. A further future large source of revenue could come from legal expertise spinning off from the oil sector and adapted to the needs of renewables. Offshore engineering will also play an important part in the trend to extend aquaculture installations from small-scale shore-based operations to big business on the high seas (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0040/00408272.pdf).
Renewables and large-scale aquaculture will not make a big economic impact over the next few years, in spite of the bold vision of the Scottish National Party (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/scottish-independence-blog/2014/apr/08/scotland-scottish-green-energy-taxes). But as oil reserves dwindle and eventually become uneconomical – in twenty, thirty of fifty years time – renewable resources will be available in to help heat homes, power industries, stimulate exports and put food on the table.