A quarter of Scotland is up for grabs as part of Chancellor George Osborne’s new dash for underground gas, bringing dangers from ‘gender-bender’ contamination, radioactive wastes, climate pollution and explosions.
Over 20,000 square kilometres covering the entire central belt and a part of the southwest have been earmarked by the UK government for exploitation by controversial technologies like fracking to extract gas from wells dug deep into the ground.
Plans are most advanced in Scotland, where proposals to drill 22 wells to tap the methane gas in coal seams near Falkirk and Stirling are now facing hundreds of objections from local communities. Opposition has also come from the leading house-builders, Cala and Persimmon, and from Network Rail, which is concerned about the railway line to Perth and Dundee being damaged by a gas blast.
In his autumn budget statement last week, Osborne announced the creation of a new government office to promote “unconventional gas” and promised tax breaks for companies mining underground shale gas. Referring to the gas boom in the US, he said: “We don’t want British families and businesses to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic.”
The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) also published a detailed strategy to boost gas production. And in the next few days the UK energy secretary, Ed Davey, is expected to lift the suspension on fracking - the fracturing of rock to force out gas - which was halted while earthquake risks were investigated.
At the same time, to help compensate for the decline in gas from under the North Sea, DECC is planning to open up new areas of the UK mainland to gas exploration and development. This will make huge swathes of central and southern Scotland available for companies to bid for licences to drill, as well as large parts of England and Wales (map available to download below).
For the nascent unconventional gas industry, this is all excellent news. Companies see the moves to exploit UK gas as a way of reducing foreign energy imports, creating profits and providing jobs – all of which they say they can do without unpalatable pollution.
But to others, it’s an environmental disaster in the making. Environmentalists point out that similar gas developments in the US and Australia have led to water being contaminated with gender-bender chemicals that can disrupt sexuality, as well as other toxic wastes.
One recent study published in an international scientific journal found that 632 chemicals were used to extract underground gas in the US. Of the 353 on which there was detailed information, more than three-quarters were potentially hazardous to health, with over a third being gender-benders and a quarter capable of causing cancer.
“These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed,” concluded the researchers from The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado.
In new regulatory guidance, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) warns that fracking for gas is “very likely” to bring radioactive wastes to the surface in fluids. The radioactivity is naturally present in the ground, but is released by the process.
Sepa also points out that, in addition to the climate pollution caused by burning the gas, there could be accidental emissions. Releasing methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, would help accelerate global warming, it says.
Sepa is tightening up its regulation of unconventional gas extraction, and says that after April 2013, operators will be required to say what chemicals they want to use for drilling operations. Inspectors would “fully assess the additives proposed to be used in order to ensure the protection of the water environment.”
Environmental and community groups, however, are demanding a halt to underground gas exploration and development. "It's very alarming that coalbed methane developments are being allowed to advance before we know the full consequences for the local environment and climate,” said Mary Church, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Communities around the world are seeing the devastating impacts of coalbed methane and shale gas expansion. We need to learn from these experiences and ensure the same doesn't happen here.”
Church criticised Sepa and the Scottish government for adopting a “wait and see” approach. “We urge ministers to undertake a thorough review of the full environmental and health impacts of unconventional gas extraction - and the suitability of the regulatory framework to deal with it - before the industry is allowed to roll out any further.”
Morag Parnell from the Women’s Environment Network in Scotland claimed it would be “utter madness” to develop underground gas with all that was known about the toxic pollution it had caused elsewhere. The effects on human and animal health, water, land and air had been well documented, she argued.
She added: “Those who are proposing to bring this technology to Scotland seem to willfully ignore this evidence. We should not have to wait to count our own Scottish sick and dying before anything is done here.”
By far the most advanced and most ambitious plan to date is to mine the methane contained in the coal beds that underlie large areas near Falkirk and Stirling. Some 16 exploratory wells have already been dug, and the Australian company, Dart Energy, has now applied for planning permission to sink 22 production wells at 14 sites.
It has signed a five-year, £300 million deal with Scottish and Southern Energy for the supply of gas, and hopes to start delivery towards the end of next year. But if all goes well, this will only be the beginning.
Dart has made clear that it wants to expand, with “at least” another 20 wells. It has also been quoted saying that a further 10-12 wells a year could be needed, suggesting that there could be over 200 in the next 20 years.
According to Dart, the first 22 wells will only extract 20% of the gas believed to be in the area. “Thus there is considerable scope to increase the project over time, both in terms of size and gas sales," the company said.
Dart, or its predecessor companies, have also sunk test drills for methane at three sites in Clackmannanshire, at Longannet power station in Fife and near Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. Another company, Reach Coal Seam Gas, has permission to explore at Deerdykes in Cumbernauld (see table below).
But Dart’s latest planning applications to both Falkirk and Stirling councils have already prompted more than 400 written objections from local residents, community councils, environmental groups and businesses. Hundreds of local people have flocked to a series of public meetings to voice their criticisms of the plans, which are due to considered by the councils in the New Year.
Network Rail has lodged a formal objection because of fears for the safety of the railway line to the north through Larbert. Its fire safety engineers “have concerns regarding the possible risk of explosion” from a methane gas pipeline that is planned to run close to the railway.
“To remove our objection, the developer must conclusively demonstrate that there will be no increased risk of injury to the travelling public or possible damage to the railway and its associated infrastructure and provide details of what fire safety measures/provisions are proposed to prevent the risk of explosion,” the objection states.
The house builders, Cala and Persimmon, are also understood to have formally objected because of the proximity of proposed gas facilities to homes in Kinnaird Village in Larbert. They argued that the plans were putting people off buying new homes there.
Maria Montinaro, from Shieldhill and California Community Council, urged councillors to reject Dart’s plans “due to the serious and unjustifiable risks to human health, safety and environmental pollution.” It was an unsustainable development “which will primarily benefit private organisations at the expense of local communities and the environment,” she said.
Dart Energy, however, maintained that underground gas was a “clean, safe and cost effective energy solution for an energy constrained world”. Producing coalbed methane in Scotland would boost the Scottish economy, and would reduce reliance on imported gas.
The company stressed that it had no plans to frack in Falkirk and Stirling, and that the way its wells were currently designed made that impossible. But it has got two licences from Sepa “for the injection of fracking fluids into groundwater” in coal seams at Mouldyhills and Broadmeadows near Canonbie, which it has said it’s not planning to use.
According to Dart, it was focused on developing the coal bed methane in the central belt. “We are in daily communication with representatives from local communities, individuals, residents associations and businesses to help people understand our plans,” said a company spokesman.
“Dart Energy follows all the established UK oilfield regulations and oil industry best practice in all of our coalbed methane operations. Our planning application makes it clear that our water-based drilling fluids contain only safe, non toxic, biodegradable additives, the same type of water-based biodegradable fluids used in conventional wells throughout the UK.”
The company argued that there would be no net increase in climate pollution because its gas would just replace imported gas. There was “just a positive impact for tax, security of supply and jobs,” the spokesman said.
Chris Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Oil and Gas in Texas, contended that fracking for gas could be a green technology. “The environmental impacts of fracking can be effectively curtailed through a combination of technology innovation and smart regulation,” he said. “The focus must be on water conservation, earth preservation, and air quality monitoring.”
The Scottish government sounded a wary note about the prospects for underground gas. “Whilst we recognise the future potential there is for unconventional gas in Scotland, shale gases and coalbed methane are not included in our energy plans or in our national energy modelling,” said a government spokeswoman.
“Many alternative energy sources including shale gas, tight gas and coal-bed methane may offer potential, but should only be pursued as long as development and use is consistent with environmental objectives.”
What is unconventional gas?
The exploitation of what is known as “unconventional gas” – shale gas, coalbed methane and other underground gases - is seen by many in the energy industry as the next big thing. It involves extracting the gas from the deep rock formations in which it is 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 is changing, and the commercial pressure to mine unconventional gas is increasing.
The problem is that the gas is not in large, handy underground wells. It is 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 even detonating explosive charges. This is commonly known as fracking, either hydraulic or ballistic.
Fracking can be used to extract the gas from shale, a type of rock, or to free “tight gas” held in deeper, denser rock formations. It can also be used to help mine the methane that inhabits coal seams.
Tapping “coalbed methane” involves drilling into and along the seams, and then pumping out and disposing of large quantities of water, a process known as dewatering. The removal of water may be enough to stimulate the flow of gas, though sometimes 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 a moratorium in place in France, and growing opposition in other countries. The UK government suspended fracking after it was blamed for causing small earthquakes near Blackpool last year, though it is now expected to give it the go-ahead.
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. There could be significant reserves in Scotland, though it’s unclear how much might be recoverable.
The UK reserves of coal bed methane are potentially much larger, with an estimated total resource of some 2,900 billion cubic metres. The big question, again, is how much of it will actually turn out to be recoverable, with estimates currently varying from one to ten per cent.
There are thought to be large amounts of recoverable methane in coal beds across Scotland’s central belt. Dart Energy, the Australian company pushing ahead with exploitation, has said that the coalbed gas could provide between three and 10% of Scotland’s gas supply in the next few decades.
Where are they drilling?
site / activities / company
Airth, Falkirk / 16 exploratory wells dug, new planning application for 22 wells at 14 sites to extract gas, with scores more possible, five-year £300m deal to sell gas signed / Dart Energy
Canonbie and Rowanburn, Dumfries and Galloway / 20 planning applications, 19 sites and two fracking licences / Dart Energy
Deerdykes, Cumbernauld / permission for one borehole / Reach CoalSeamGas
Moodiesburn, North Lanarkshire / planning application withdrawn after objections / Reach CoalSeamGas
Bandeath, Stirling / exploratory wells drilled / Dart Energy
Meadowhill farm, Foresthill, Clackmannanshire / exploratory well drilled / Dart Energy
Orchard farm, Alloa, Clackmannanshire / permission for exploratory well / Dart Energy
Arns farm, Clackmannan / permission for exploratory wells / Dart Energy
Longannet power station, Fife / permission for exploratory wells / Dart Energy
Download a map showing the UK areas zoned for underground gas exploitation here (513KB pdf).
Read the Sunday Herald's editorial on the dash for underground gas here.
Read an earlier article on underground gas exploitation in Scotland here.