The company has revealed that it is going to apply for planning permission to sink four or five wells to find out how much gas is trapped in underground rocks. This will not involve hydraulic fracturing, it says, and will be consistent with the government’s desire for further research.
But community and environmental groups angrily insist that test drilling would breach the moratorium and destroy public trust. They are demanding that ministers block Ineos’s applications.
A temporary moratorium on “the granting of planning consents for all unconventional oil and gas developments, including fracking” was announced by the Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing in January. He ordered local authorities and regulators not to permit developments while health risks were investigated and a public consultation was held.
The timescale for the investigation and consultation have yet to be announced, and they are now expected to extend beyond the Scottish election in May 2016. But Ineos has indicated that it wants to start test drilling and seismic testing for shale gas soon.
Bill Frew, who chairs a broad alliance of communities across Scotland opposing fracking and other unconventional gas developments, argued that test drilling was covered by the moratorium. “If this is not the case, then we cannot trust them to keep their word and the Scottish Government has badly misled Scottish communities,” he said.
He urged ministers to ensure that test drilling did not take place while the moratorium was in force. “Ineos and other developers are only interested in lining their own pockets, and are perfectly willing to exploit and trash our environment, and local communities,” he alleged.
Lang Banks, director of the environmental group, WWF Scotland, argued that Ineos should be told to await the outcome of the forthcoming consultation. “Given the current moratorium, pressing ahead with test drilling would be both irresponsible and premature,” he said.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Trust in the credibility of the moratorium is going to be destroyed if people suddenly find Ineos drilling holes at the bottom of their garden.”
He added: “Communities across the central belt will be up in arms if test drilling turns out to allowed while Scotland is supposedly still reviewing the health and environmental evidence on unconventional gas and fracking.”
According to John Wilson, the independent MSP for central Scotland, Ineos’s decision to press ahead with work related to fracking would cast doubt on the moratorium. “It is now time for the Scottish Government to come clean about an outright ban on fracking and unconventional gas extraction,” he said.
Ineos, however, suggested that it did not yet know if the shale gas under central Scotland could be economically exploited. “In order to determine this, we need to do seismic surveys, then drill a few wells and take core samples of the rock for laboratory analysis of the rock properties, including gas content,” said the company’s operations director, Tom Pickering.
The plan was to dig four or five wells in total, he disclosed. “This is fully consistent with the Scottish Government’s desire for further research and would not involve fracking,” he said.
“As and when we decide on locations for such wells we would consult with affected communities and go through the normal planning process."
The Scottish Government pointed out that Ineos had not yet made any applications to drill exploratory boreholes. “No fracking can or will take place in Scotland while the moratorium we have announced remains in place, a policy that has received wide support from both environmental groups and industry,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We are taking a careful, considered and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas, and the moratorium and the planned public consultation will allow all stakeholders and local communities to have their say.”