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Scotland's oil reserves: The Trillion-dollar question

In less than a month the Scottish referendum on independence will take place. With emotions running high, the question of what happens to the North Sea's oil and gas reserves if Scotland votes 'Yes' remains a key part of the debate.

The oil and gas industry employs approximately 450,000 people in the U.K., and in 2012/13 paid £6.5 billion ($10.8 billion) in taxes.

More than 40 billion barrels of oil and gas have already been extracted, and according to estimates from Oil and Gas U.K., the offshore industry's trade association, there could be as many as 24 billion barrels of oil and gas left.

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For the pro-independence campaign, the value of these reserves – potentially as much as £1.5 trillion according to the Scottish government – would help ensure economic stability and security for Scotland. This figure has been disputed by those campaigning to keep Scotland part of the U.K.

Earlier this week Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, emphasized the importance of oil and gas to an independent Scotland.

"The reality is North Sea oil and gas will be with us way beyond 2050," he said in a televised debate. "Every other country in Europe would give its 'eye teeth' to have North Sea oil and gas. It cannot be regarded as anything other than a substantial asset for Scotland."

Those in the 'No' camp claim that placing such importance on oil and gas is a potentially risky strategy, with the Better Together campaign stating, "Not only will North Sea oil and gas eventually run out, its value is notoriously volatile... independence would be forever, oil is not."

Gareth Mccormack | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images

Samir Brikho, Chief Executive of AMEC, believes that independence could have a significant impact on investors. "I think all investors in this world, they do not like uncertainty. And I think independence will cause… uncertainty," he said in a report for CNBC's Energy Future.

And while many in the pro-independence camp say that decades of oil and gas revenues have been irresponsibly squandered by a succession of Westminster governments, some analysts aren't so sure, claiming that the U.K. government had no choice but to spend revenues.

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"At the time we started North Sea production we had a number of other burning social issues," Glynn Williams, from oil and gas services investor Epi-V, told Energy Future. "There was high inflation, a lot of unemployment, [and] our industries were having to evolve rapidly from being older, manufacturing industries," he added.

At reportedly $800 billion, Norway has one of the world's biggest sovereign wealth funds thanks to its vast oil and gas reserves. For Salmond, the oil and gas rich country provides an exemplary model for an independent Scotland, which would look to set up its own oil fund to manage offshore revenues.

Salmond has described Norway as, "smaller than Scotland, but a country which by every observation has handled its North Sea oil and gas resources substantially better than the stewardship from Westminster."

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However Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, says that because of Scotland's deficit the creation of an oil fund would rely heavily on borrowed money, increasing risk, especially given the increasing cost of both extraction and exploration.

"We have always argued that the proposal by the nationalists to pay into an oil fund made little sense when Scotland was already running a net fiscal deficit," Darling wrote on the Better Together website. "Common sense tell us that you shouldn't borrow money and save it at the same time," he added.

As the debate rages on, only one thing is certain about the future of North Sea oil and gas: none of us will know what's in store until Scotland decides on 18 September.

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