A FIRST licence for the controversial gas drilling technique known as fracking has been granted in Scotland – with more likely to follow.
Scotland on Sunday has learned that the Greenpark Energy company has been given permission to search for gas at a site at Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway.
The company, based in Berwick Upon Tweed, is also seeking a licence for a second site in the area, two miles north of the Scottish Border, in a bid to tap into gas trapped in 400,000 tonnes of coal deep underground. It has already drilled boreholes hundreds of metres into the ground to test for the presence of gas at its Dumfries and Galloway site.
The first licence has been granted despite concerns that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, can cause earthquakes. A report by shale gas firm Cuadrilla Resources last week found it was “highly probable” it triggered earth tremors near Blackpool earlier this year. Other risks associated with fracking include poisoning of drinking water if it becomes contaminated with the fluids used in the process and adding to the pollution that is believed to be disrupting the climate.
A second firm, Dart Energy, which has bought Stirling-based Composite Energy, is drilling for coal bed methane in Airth, Falkirk. Although this is being done without fracking, the company has not ruled out applying for a licence to use the technique if it discovers shale beneath the coal.
Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into shale rock or coal beds to create tiny cracks. When the pumping stops, the sand keeps the fractures open and the trapped gas escapes and can be collected.
To its supporters, fracked gas opens up the prospect of a cheaper, cleaner and abundant form of alternative energy. David Harper, an executive vice president at Greenpark Energy, confirmed that as well as having permission to use fracking at one site, the company has lodged an application to use the technique at a second site, although operations were not currently being carried out. “We like to be able to secure consent to do things but we are doing neither drilling nor fracking in Scotland at the moment,” he said.
Conventional gas reserves, mainly offshore, are tapped into by drilling into a gas reservoir underground, releasing the gas to flow to the surface. Fracking has been developed to get at difficult methane and shale gas reserves – unconventional gas – stuck in rock or coal formations. A huge field of shale, fine-grained rock formed from mud and other deposits, stretches from the Scottish Borders to Derbyshire.
The potential risks are being played down by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Sepa, which granted the licence to Greenpark. Malcolm Roberts, a principal policy officer at Sepa, said fracking was likely to become more widespread in Scotland in coming years. “I don’t associate the risks with fracking as being any more significant than a lot of other things we do,” he said. “They are not high-risk operations provided they are done properly.”
Roberts said the primary concern was to make sure ground water was not contaminated with the fracturing fluid, potentially leading to poisoned drinking water supplies.
Tremors such as those near Blackpool were extremely rare, he added. However, other environmental groups believe the process should be banned. Friends of the Earth Scotland campaigner Mary Church said it was a “worry” to hear a fracking licence had already been granted in Scotland. “Communities near fracking sites in the US can’t drink their tap water, but they can set it alight due to the amount of methane being leaked,” she said.
“Now to add to these dangerous and disruptive impacts, it has been revealed that fracking also causes earth tremors. Scottish communities living near numerous identified fracking sites across the central belt will be rightly alarmed.”
Scientists believe the environmental consequences of fracking have been exaggerated. Quentin Fisher, professor of petroleum geoengineering at the University of Leeds, said some groups were “overly concerned”. “There isn’t actually any evidence to suggest water supplies have been contaminated due to hydraulic fracture formation,” he said.
“The examples of gas igniting from taps are probably caused by gas leakage along the casing of boreholes – not hydraulic fracturing.
“Such incidences can easily be avoided and if one is going to ban shale gas production on the basis of such incidents one would seriously need to consider banning all on-land drilling because such incidents are just as likely to occur when drilling conventional gas reservoirs.”
Dr Clifford Jones, reader in engineering at the University of Aberdeen, said of more concern than tremors was the possibility of drinking water being contaminated. However, he said this should not “preclude such development”.
“There are many currently producing shale gas deposits in the US and Australia and it will be to the UK’s loss if it does not develop such reserves of this as it has,” he said.