Will fracking lead to cheap oil for all? Not necessarily

Ceteris paribus. Always with the ceteris paribus.

FT Alphaville's Kate Mackenzie has an excerpt of a very interesting research note from energy consultant Phil Verleger. The bulk of the note is a look back at the apparent vindication of MIT economist Morris Adelman, who rejected the ideas of "peak oil" at the time when they were most fashionable. Adelman, Verleger writes, accurately surmised that technological advances would mean the total reserves are far less predictable than a narrative of rising prices and increasing scarcity would imply.

But Mackenzie picks out the surprising twist in Verleger's note. While he, like so many others, points to the massive change wrought on the global energy market by the invention of fracking and other techniques for extracting unconventional reserves, he doesn't see that as leading to a predictable fall in prices. While a glut of unconventional oil would be good enough to depress prices, it couldn't simply replace the traditional OPEC countries. And the way they would deal with that squeeze could have strong repercussions:

Periods of low oil prices will undermine existing governments in nations such as Russia, Kuwait, Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria, Iran, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. These countries have not used oil revenues to diversify economies and build infrastructure for the post-petroleum future. Instead the monies have gone to fund larger and larger transfer (welfare) payments to mushrooming populations.

Adelman’s vindication will mean these nations must curtail such payments when they are forced to cut sales and production sharply or when prices fall. Political instability will increase as such times.

Supply and demand are complicated things. There's a reason economists love the phrase ceteris paribus – "all else being equal" – and thats because most of the time, they aren't. Fracking will introduce a downward pressure on prices, we know that. But the responses of the multifarious other producers and consumers to that pressure are chaotic and barely predictable. A simple prediction of a world of cheap oil might not be as safe a bet as it seems.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.