from Sunday Herald, 25 May 2014
Scotland will soon end its moratorium on the controversial technology of fracking with a major boom in bids to drill for shale gas across the central belt, according to energy companies, experts and environmentalists.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered widespread agreement that the hydraulic fracturing of underground rocks to extract shale gas - so far avoided north of the border – is now on its way, boosted by UK government incentives, a company buy-out and a crucial weakening of the Scottish government’s planning conditions.
A coalition of major oil and gas multinationals has said “shale gas could have an important role to play in Scotland”. A geologist has pointed to the “very strong incentives” for commercial exploitation, and a campaign group has warned that Scotland will be “flooded” with applications for hundreds of fracking wells.
On Friday the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in London announced a package of proposals to help kick-start fracking across the UK. Companies are to be given new rights to access shale gas underground, and communities next to fracking developments are promised an average of £800,000 in compensation.
Two other moves expected in the next few weeks will further excite interest in fracking Scotland. A new report due from the British Geological Survey will estimate how much shale gas could be contained in the “midland valley” of Scotland, which takes in the whole of the central lowlands.
And DECC is planning to launch the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. This will encourage companies to bid for new licences to exploit shale gas across a huge swathe of the central belt.
Unlike England, Scotland has had an effective moratorium on fracking developments for the last couple of years. The technology has been blamed for causing earthquakes, contaminating water supplies and creating climate pollution.
There have been only two known licences to dispose of fracking wastes in Scotland, both near Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. But they have been abandoned by the company that inherited them, Dart Energy, on the grounds that it doesn’t need to frack.
It is planning to extract coalbed methane from under Airth near Falkirk without resorting to hydraulic fracturing. The company’s plan, which has attracted over 2,500 objections, has been considered by a public inquiry and is now awaiting a decision.
But earlier this month, the British onshore oil and gas developer, IGas Energy, announced that it was buying out Dart. The aim, IGas said, was to create a new £400 million company that would lead the race to exploit shale gas across the UK.
Neither Dart nor IGas would comment last week on their fracking plans for Scotland, but other major operators were less shy. Shale Gas Europe, which includes Shell, Chevron, Statoil, Halliburton and Cuadrilla Resources, pointed out that Dart had estimated that there were 370 billion cubic feet of shale gas recoverable from two areas of central Scotland.
“Europe’s energy demand is rising whilst indigenous production continues to decline which means we either have to source more energy from abroad or we have to look for new sources of energy,” said Marcus Pepperell, the spokesman for Shale Gas Europe.
“Shale gas could have an important role to play in Scotland, for domestic use or for export, but we will only understand its true potential as a valuable domestic energy source with more exploration and research developed within a secure, affordable and environmentally sustainable energy framework.”
Cuadrilla, which is pursuing fracking south of the border, sent its chief executive, Francis Egan, to Edinburgh last week to talk at a sold-out Scottish Oil Club dinner. The company had no “specific” plans for Scotland, said a spokesman, “but obviously, as a leading company in European shale exploration, we'll be studying the 14th round closely.”
Another underground gas company based in Aberdeen, Reach Coal Seam Gas, failed to respond to a request to comment. But its managing director, Graham Dean, is playing a leading role in a major international conference on developing shale gas in Edinburgh in June.
According to Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh who advises the Scottish government, rock formations in central and east Scotland held “potentially suitable” shale gas. “The clues of circumstantial geological evidence will be very strong incentives for commercial exploration companies to bid for drilling licences,” he said.
“It will take several boreholes, not just one or two, to determine if there is oil or gas which can be profitably extracted. The best use of such resources in my opinion is likely to be as feedstock into Ineos petrochemicals at Grangemouth - rather than being simply burned.”
The Scottish government has come under fire from environmental groups for watering down its proposals to protect local communities from the risks of fracking and other underground gas developments. Ministers announced last October that they were going to require safety buffer zones around all developments.
Campaigners thought that ministers would impose minimum buffer zones, but now it’s become clear that companies will propose the size of the zones. The planning minister, Derek MacKay told parliament that allowing developers to specify the zones “is an appropriate policy approach”.
Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland, accused the Scottish government of dashing hopes that communities would be protected. It was gravely underestimating the fracking threat, she warned.
“If the Scottish government is serious about protecting communities and living up its climate commitment it should be bold enough to ban unconventional gas exploitation before a vast part of the country is handed over to fracking companies,” Church said.
"In the coming months communities across Scotland could be flooded with applications for fracking, and we could be looking hundreds of test wells in a matter of only a few years.”
She was backed by the environmental consultant and activist, Paul Mobbs, who argued that exploiting underground gas was highly polluting and expensive. “We can expect a rash of applications to produce this energy source over the next decade because the government can't accept this reality,” he said.
Murdo Fraser, the Conservative MSP who convenes of the Scottish Parliament’s energy committee, thought there would be “considerable interest” in Scotland from shale gas developers. “I would encourage the Scottish government to help facilitate the process,” he said.
The Scottish government stressed that “at this time” there were no fracking proposals in Scotland. “The Scottish government will follow a rigorous evidence-based approach in the development and deployment of this technology,” said a spokeswoman.
“We proposed in the draft Scottish Planning Policy that it is for developers of proposals for the extraction of resources to include an adequate buffer zone. Planning authorities will be able to assess their adequacy case by case.”