An Australian company is about to apply for permission to drill the country’s first exploratory well in a bid to exploit the shale gas that could be locked in the rocks deep beneath the earth.
Composite Energy, which was taken over the Australian multinational methane gas extraction firm, Dart Energy Limited, in February, wants to sink a £1 million test bore 2,000 metres deep at Airth near Falkirk before the end of the year.
If it finds what it hopes, full-scale fracking – or hydraulic fracturing (see below) - to extract the gas could follow. As well as opening up a whole new energy frontier in Scotland, this would unleash an unprecedented environmental conflict.
Environmental groups say that fracking can contaminate water supplies, and will greatly add to the pollution that scientists say is disrupting the climate. Shale gas, they say, should stay in the ground to help save the planet.
According to WWF Scotland, fracking would be disastrous for Scotland.“Scotland saw the birth of the shale oil industry over 150 years ago but times change and shale gas is the last thing we need,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“It is ridiculous for a country with the world's best climate targets and supreme ambitions on renewable energy to be home to a proposal to produce a new fossil fuels even dirtier than coal. Scotland should instead be playing to its natural advantages in clean, green renewable energy.”
He pointed to evidence from the US that fracking could cause gas and toxic chemicals to leak into drinking water. “Shale gas is a disaster for the climate and its production can contaminate groundwater,” he argued.
Dixon urged Scotland to follow the example set by France, and ban fracking before it has a chance to get going. “If this proposal goes ahead it will be an embarrassment for the new government,” he said. “Any shale gas projects in Scotland will quickly tarnish our global claim to green credentials.”
But Peter Roles, the managing director of Composite Energy in Stirling, defended the search for shale gas. The geology of central Scotland suggested that it would be there, he said.
“It’s worth a look,” he told the Sunday Herald. “It’s worth the investment.” Contamination of groundwater could be avoided by ensuring that fracking was contained in certain areas, he claimed.
“There has been a lot of negative publicity, but I don’t think it’s well-founded,” Roles said. He argued that indigenous supplies of gas, which emitted less than half as much carbon dioxide as coal, were an important bridge to a low-carbon future.
Composite Energy’s main business is extracting methane from underground coal seams. It is also planning to begin test drilling for coal bed methane in Airth in August, with the aim of sinking 80 wells and employing over 500 people.
The company has three petroleum exploration development licences across central Scotland. The largest covers 500 square kilometres and takes in parts of Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Perth and Kinross, Fife, Falkirk and West Lothian.
The Scottish government suggested that unconventional gas offered huge potential “as long as development and use is consistent with environmental objectives.” A spokeswoman said: “There is global interest in learning more about unconventional gasses, with strict processes and licensing in place, at Scottish and UK level, to ensure testing is done sustainably and with as little environment impact as possible.”
She added: “Significant amounts of unconventional gas are now being found all over the world and untapped energy sources such as coalbed methane offer huge potential to extend the life of gas reserves. Gas will continue to play an important role in our energy use for many years to come, which is why we are keen to see carbon capture and storage develop for gas as well as coal.”
What the frack?
In the TV science fiction series, Battlestar Galactica, fracking found fame as a coarse swear word. In the real world, it is the name given to an industrial process known as hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking involves pumping water or other fluids laced with sand or other particles at high pressure into rock formations deep underground. The process fractures the rock and releases shale gas trapped inside.
The gas can then be collected and brought to the surface. Like North Sea gas, it can be distributed to homes and offices for heating and cooking, or used to generate electricity.
Fracking has been used in the US, where it has generated controversy and contaminated water supplies. An Oscar-nominated documentary film called Gasland suggested that tap water in Dimock, on the border between Pennsylvania and New York state, contained so much fracked gas that it would burst into flames.