An investigation by the Sunday Herald has discovered that there are ten sites across the central belt and in the south west being explored and developed for methane, with the prospect of many more to come. The idea is to extract the flammable gas from deep coal beds by drilling, draining and pumping, perhaps using the highly controversial technique known as fracking.
But critics warn that, whether or not fracking is used, the risks that groundwater will be polluted and public health put at risk are “unacceptable high”. They also fear that exploiting the gas will make it impossible for Scotland to meet its targets to cut the carbon emissions that are disrupting the climate.
Coal bed methane is regarded by some in the energy industry as a potentially huge resource that could help replace dwindling supplies from the North Sea. A major Australian company, Dart Energy, is now behind most of the plans in Scotland.
It took over the Scottish firm, Composite Energy, a year ago, acquiring a series of exploratory drilling sites in Falkirk, Stirling, Clackmannanshire and Fife (see table below). In recent weeks, it has also taken over licences acquired by another company, Greenpark Energy, in the Canonbie area of Dumfries and Galloway.
Two of the Greenpark licences from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) are “for the injection of fracking fluids into groundwater” in coal seams at Mouldyhills and Broadmeadows near Canonbie. There have been 26 planning applications leading to maybe 17 borehole sites in the area.
The other main area of coal bed methane development is around Airth near Falkirk. There, Sepa has issued licences for water to be extracted and disposed of from 11 boreholes, and Dart Energy has signed a £300 million deal to supply gas to Scottish and Southern Energy.
Later this year the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change is due to begin a new round of petroleum exploration and development licencing, which covers underground gas. This will make a hugely expanded area all across central Scotland available for exploitation by companies.
To date the developers seem to have had it mostly their way by managing to stay under the radar and avoiding much opposition. But there are now clear signs that this is changing.
An application for coal bed methane drilling at Moodiesburn in North Lanarkshire by another company, Reach Coal Seam Gas, was withdrawn two weeks ago after more than 200 objections were lodged. “I have serious concerns regarding the effect it will have on the structure of our homes,” said one local resident, Alice Webb.
“I believe this proposal will put health, property and the environment at serious risk,” said another resident, Brian McDonald. “I am appalled that the council are considering such an application in a residential area.”
A leading environmental group, Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES), is also gearing up to launch a campaign to help local communities resist coal bed methane proposals. It points to a series of studies from the US showing that that fracking can contaminate groundwater, and that its fluids have leaked and killed farm animals.
A company that had started fracking for shale gas at a site near Blackpool had to stop last year because of fears that it had triggered small earthquakes. It commissioned a study which concluded that it was “highly probable” that fracking was to blame.
FoES argues that extracting coal bed methane without fracking would be at least as dangerous. Water aquifers are often nearby and liable to pollution, and large amounts of coal-contaminated water have to be got rid of.
“There are inherent and unacceptably high environmental and health risks associated with coal bed methane and shale gas extraction, whether or not fracking is used,” said FoES campaigner, Mary Church.
“But even if it were safe to extract this gas, it isn’t safe to burn it in terms of climate change. Investing in unconventional gas now will lock us into to dangerously high greenhouse gas emissions and make it extremely difficult to meet our legally binding carbon reduction targets in 2050.”
She called on ministers to ban all unconventional gas exploitation. She was backed by the Women’s Environment Network in Scotland, whose spokeswoman, Morag Parnell, said: “We need to bring to an end this highly polluting coal bed methane exploration in Scotland.”
Sepa was concerned that the gas exploitation “could lead to deterioration in groundwater quality, disturbance to groundwater levels or indirectly impact on other sensitive parts of the water environment.” That’s why regulatory controls were necessary, it said.
The Scottish government did not expect “significant emissions” from the extraction and burning of coal bed methane. “We have not included shale gases or coal bed methane in our plans for more renewables and baseload generation in Scotland’s future energy mix,” said a government spokesman.
Dart Energy said that it was reviewing all the licences it had obtained from Greenpark Energy for the Canonbie area. “There is no drilling on them at the moment,” said a Dart spokesman.
He declined, however, to respond to fears about contamination and health risks. “The company believes these issues warrant a proper conversation set in context rather than responding to cherry-picked sound bites,” he said.
Fracking with explosives is the future, says gas man
Dennis Donald describes himself as “vertically challenged”, but he certainly doesn’t lack ambition. He believes he has the technologies needed to unlock vast reserves of gas around the globe – and that Scotland should become a world leader in the field.
A former oil well engineer with Shell in Aberdeen, Donald (55) is now director of Warrego Energy, a company that specialises in fracking with explosives for underground gas. It has recently won the rights to exploit gas from shales and other rocks across a 230-square kilometre block of Western Australia.
This could yield maybe 85 billion cubic metres of gas, which at current market rates would be worth over £20 billion, he says. That’s about the same as a major gas field in the North Sea, and he’s hoping to start commercial extraction by the end of 2014.
Global energy demand is going to increase 50% over the next 20 years, so the world will have to exploit the large amounts of “unconventional gas” trapped in underground rock formations, he argues. “Scotland should pay attention,” he tells the Sunday Herald. “We could be at the forefront of opening up the unconventional market.”
A recent report by the accountants KPMG suggested that using gas instead of renewable energy sources could save £45 billion and help meet targets to cut climate pollution by 2020. “That’s the harsh reality of the situation,” Donald says. “You can ignore the market, but the market won’t ignore you.”
Tapping unconventional gas will give us a bridge to the time when renewables are fully developed and ready, he argues. He doesn’t favour nuclear power, but is concerned that banking on renewables as the Scottish government seems to be doing is too big a risk.
“I don’t think renewables can go from here to producing the sort of power that we consume in 20 years time,” he warns. “If unconventional gas really is a transition fuel, I don’t think we should be ignoring it - we really need to be into it.”
Although renewables may be the ultimate answer because they don’t emit climate-wrecking carbon, they may take longer than expected to deliver. “You can’t say we’re not going to be involved in unconventional gas because actually we’re betting everything on renewables,” he says. “That’s doesn’t seem to me to be a sensible strategy.”
Burning gas is much less environmentally damaging that burning coal, oil or tar, Donald points out. “Why would we not go for the hydrocarbon with the least environmental footprint?”
As well as providing the energy for heating and cooking, gas could help replace petrol, he suggests. “Gas will become as transportable as oil and people will power their cars with gas.”
Donald has a few barriers to overcome, however, before his vision can translate into reality. One of his main fracking technologies, for example, is likely to raise hackles.
It’s called the “triple charge perforator”. It involves placing lots of “guns” underground loaded with three carefully directed and timed explosive charges designed to “rubblise” the rock.
According to Donald, his new method of “ballistic fracking” could be cheaper and more efficient for some rock formations that the more conventional hydraulic fracking, which uses high pressure liquids. But critics will argue that it is more likely to trigger earth tremors and contaminate groundwater.
Donald declines to address the earthquake risk, merely pointing that that it is currently being studied. On contamination he contends that problems from over two million fracking operations in the US have been “minimal”.
“This is a very emotive issue,” he says, but accepts that if fracking is outlawed, his dream will have to die. “How we operate and what we do is governed by the countries in which we operate. We must obey their environmental rules and regulations, and if they say we can’t do this, then the operation will cease.”
What is unconventional gas?
The exploitation of what is known as “unconventional gas” is seen by some in the energy industry as the next big thing. It means extracting methane and associated gases from underground rock formations in which they are trapped.
Until recently the technical difficulties in tapping the gas have meant that it was too expensive to exploit. But as gas from the North Sea and other sources runs down, that may change, and the commercial pressure to mine unconventional gas will increase.
The problem is that the gas is not in large, handy underground wells. It is in miniscule bubbles in tiny holes scattered through massive volumes of rock, so getting substantial amounts out and up to the surface is tricky.
One way of freeing the gas is to deliberately fracture the rock by drilling down and then pumping in high-pressure liquids, or detonating explosive charges. This is commonly known as fracking, either hydraulic or ballistic.
Fracking can be used to extract the gas from underground shales or to free “tight gas” held in deeper, denser rock formations. It can also sometimes be needed to help mine the methane that inhabits coal seams.
Tapping “coal bed methane” involves drilling into and along the seams, and then pumping out and disposing of large quantities of water, a process known as dewatering. In some places, the removal of water may be enough to stimulate the flow of gas, though in others fracking may also be necessary.
The amount of unconventional gas that might be exploitable in Scotland and around the globe looks huge. The International Energy Agency estimates that there may be enough to extend the world’s recoverable gas reserves from 120 to 250 years at current consumption levels.
The agency also reckons that gas use will rise by more than 50% to account for over a quarter of world energy demand by 2035. Unconventional gas already accounts for 60% of gas production in the US, and is being touted as the future in some parts of Eastern Europe.
Western Europe, however, is more nervous, with moratoriums in place in France and a major German province, and growing opposition in other countries. The UK government has informally suspended fracking after it was blamed for causing small earthquakes near Blackpool last year.
Estimates of the UK’s unconventional gas reserves vary. The British Geological Survey has put recoverable shale gas reserves at 150 billion cubic metres, equivalent to about 18 months usage at current rates. The US Department of Energy has said it could be nearly four times more than that, and a fracking company has suggested a much higher figure.
The UK reserves of coal bed methane are potentially bigger, with an estimated total resource of some 2,900 billion cubic metres. The big question, though, is how much of it will actually turn out to be recoverable, with estimates currently varying from one to ten per cent.
The extent of shale gas reserves in Scotland is unclear, though there could be some. However, there are thought to be large amounts of recoverable methane in coal beds across the central belt and in Dumfries and Galloway, close to the border with England.
Searching for underground gas in Scotland
site / activities / company
Canonbie and Rowanburn, Dumfries and Galloway / 26 planning applications, 17 sites and a fracking licence / Dart Energy (was Greenpark Energy)
Moodiesburn, North Lanarkshire / planning application withdrawn after objections / Reach Coal Seam Gas Ltd
Bandeath, Stirling / four appraisal wells drilled / Dart Energy
Meadowhill farm, Foresthill, Clackmannanshire / four appraisal wells drilled / Dart Energy
Orchard farm, Alloa, Clackmannanshire / planning application / Dart Energy
Arns farm, Clackmannan / planning application / Dart Energy (was Coalbed Methane Ltd)
Airth, Falkirk / 11 boreholes licensed by Scottish Environment Protection Agency, £300m deal to sell gas signed / Dart Energy
Longannet power station, Fife / one appraisal well drilled / Dart Energy
West Fife / 200–square-kilometre block licenced for exploitation / Dart Energy
East Fife / 112-square-kilometre block licenced for exploitation / Dart Energy