Eddie Barnes: Into the unknown

Despite safety pledges and the promised energy bonanza, many fear the environmental consequences of Scotland’s dash for gas

A protester sends a message to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Picture: Gareth Easton
A protester sends a message to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Picture: Gareth Easton
A protester sends a message to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Picture: Gareth Easton

IT’S functional name is Well No 6. For Carol Anderson, however, it is the source of much of her anxiety.

Anderson lives just outside Larbert, the Forth Valley village a couple of miles north east of Falkirk. It is just down the road from Bathgate where, more than 150 years ago, what is still considered to be the world’s first oil refinery was set up, built on the reserves of shale oil which were found under Scotland’s Central Belt. Today, the energy business is once again examining central Scotland’s rich underground wealth. Specifically, right now, it is focusing on a few thousand feet of ground beneath the homes in Larbert and the surrounding Forth Valley basin where, trapped in coal seams, are huge amounts of natural gas.

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Well No 6 is just one of 23 new wells (on top of 14 already completed) being planned by the firm Dart Energy, with the aim, the company says, of providing a “key contribution to Scottish and UK energy security at a time of declining North Sea supplies”. Scottish and Southern Energy is already signed up to buy the coal bed methane if and when it is pumped to the surface. On top of £40m already invested, Dart’s executives declare the scheme could sink a further £100m into the area, guaranteeing activity for up to 25 years.

None of which is any comfort to Anderson. The well site – situated about half a mile from her house – isn’t visible from her window thanks to a hump in the landscape. But if it is out of sight, it is not out of mind. “We see this is as a dangerous experiment and we don’t want to be the guinea pigs,” she said. “That’s not scaremongering. The more I read about it, the more worried I become. This isn’t just environmentalists and activists here. It is also local residents.” She is referring to the estimated 2,500 people who have written in to object to Dart – whose planning application has now been put before an impartial Scottish Government reporter. Maria Montinaro, who is heading up a local pressure group (Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas) to protest against the plans, adds: “These wells are only 1,000 metres below the surface. This water down there has been stewing underneath there for millennia. And now we’re looking at hundreds or thousands of wells under the central belt pumping it up.”

Dart has put together lengthy statements on safety issues. It believes it is the victim of misinformation. It doesn’t plan to do any “fracking” here, for example. That is the procedure in which the rock seams are cracked underground to release trapped gas. It plans to use a different method of extraction, pumping water through the coal seam to release the gas. But will any of this persuade Anderson and those like her that the new “unconventional” gas wells are safe? Environmental groups claim that fracking has been introduced at a high number of coal-bed methane wells in Australia to extract the last stores of gas. “No,” she replies. “There’s too little known about this. I have very little confidence in the powers of regulation.”

This is Britain’s new energy battleground. Last week, all eyes were focused 500 miles south of Scotland’s central belt, in the Sussex village of Balcombe, where – to the sound of tearful protests from local people – energy firm Cuadrilla (having won planning permission) began drilling an exploratory well for oil and gas. The so-called “Battle of Balcombe” witnessed celebrity protesters such as Bianca Jagger eventually forcing the firm to employ a police escort for their drilling equipment to be transported in. In Sussex, Falkirk, and many other parts of the UK where the search for “unconventional” fossil fuel is also proceeding, the politics of energy is emerging with a vengeance. On one level, it is a story which focuses on the impact of engineering on the environment, symbolised by the disturbing-sounding “fracking” method. On another, it is also about how the trust between private enterprise and the politicians who back it and local communities appears fractured and broken too. The disconnect was symbolised perfectly by Conservative peer Lord Howell, George Osborne’s father-in-law, who declared last week that the search for gas could best be undertaken in the “desolate” parts of northern England. The industry and its political backers claim that under our feet is a national bounty which could help transform the country’s economy with no risk, and guaranteed safety – a natural win-win situation. But is there any chance that they might ever persuade a worried and distrustful society they are right?

Most of the oil and gas trapped underneath Britain’s landscape have long lain untouched because of the difficulties involved in getting it out. But with technological advances – and high global energy prices – so it has now become economically viable to extract the fuel. Unlike “conventional” gas which is sited in fields between layers of rock, “unconventional” gas is trapped in deep underground rocks and requires techniques such as fracking to be retrieved. The technique, and others like it, are causing widespread anxiety. The fracking of rocks in Lancashire – where the largest deposits of gas are believed to be found – was deemed to be the “highly probable” cause of an earthquake measuring 2.3 on the Richter scale in 2011, prompting a moratorium. Osborne has now given the go-ahead for the industry to start work again, however, prompting competing claims about the kinds of financial bounty that lies beneath. One estimate is that the amount of recoverable gas in the on-shore fields is equivalent to Britain’s original share of North Sea reserves.

And Scotland has its share. Graham Dean, the managing director of Reach Coal Seam Gas, which is examining the Central Belt’s potential, draws a line between the two airports in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as the rough area where wells could be dropped. As an estimate, he believes that six drill pads of around four hectares each – around the size of four athletics tracks – could be built to extract much of the gas. “It would take around 10 to 15 years to develop and then it could produce for around 20 to 25 years,” he said. “Renewables, such as wind and wave power, are very important, but we need to do both and we will rely on gas for decades. It’s imported coal and gas that we don’t need. If we have our own gas why spend money on Ferraris for Qataris?” he adds.

Plenty of reasons, argue campaigners in Scotland, who are gathered within the bluntly-named “Frack Off Scotland” group. Ed Pybus, who started the group after reading up on the new energy plans, says that the “overriding concern” is the climate change argument. “We have to stop burning fossil fuels at some point,” he said. Furthermore, he said: “It is hard to think of a more destructive form of getting gas out of the ground.” The objections are many and varied. Unlike conventional gas, where one well is all that is needed, unconventional gas – fracked or not – requires dozens of wells to get at the pockets of gases trapped deep underground. That increases the risks of leakage. In addition, the technique often requires huge amounts of salt water, buried underground in the coal bed, to be pumped up to the surface. At the Falkirk site, this will then be treated and pumped direct into the Firth of Forth, prompting warnings of pollution. Objectors also claim it could damage underground water aquifers. More generally, there is a fear of the unknown. Montinaro says that the West Lothian area is already dotted with hundreds of hidden coal mine shafts. Add in dozens of new bore holes, some going underneath people’s homes, and who knows what the effect will be? In New South Wales, campaigners note, the local government has put in place buffer zones between communities and gas wells, which they claim should now be put in place here too.

However, industry insiders appear to believe they are the victim of Google-search conspiracies. The word “fracking” sounds scary – and so (they argue) environmentalists and activists have deliberately gone about whipping up public fears as part of their wider aim to destroy the fossil fuel industry. Dean said: “Opposition is based on hearsay from the internet using information that is not relevant to the UK. In the UK you can’t do anything that is not environmentally safe. There’s no potential for polluting the water supply. We have to provide evidence it is not happening.”

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Even though the Falkirk scheme does not involve fracking, Dart says it will now sign on the dotted line guaranteeing it won’t, in the hope of placating local people. A spokesman said: “The type of coals don’t lend themselves to fracking. The company has stated quite clearly that fracking is not involved. We are prepared to have a specific exclusion in the planning provision saying no fracking.”

The fate of that plan will now be decided by the Scottish Government’s impartial reporter. And while, in England, such schemes appear now to be getting an enthusiastic nod, industry figures say that Scottish ministers have so far been much less enthusiastic. One leading government source said that with reserves contained mostly in England it was not a priority at St Andrew’s House where the development of the North Sea and renewable energy sources remain top of the priority list. Industry figures argue, however, that if Scotland does not embrace the new technology, much of the engineering expertise that has been developed in Aberdeen could end up being sucked south to where the new revolution is brewing.

As to whether communities can ever be reassured, academics say that the industry needs to show as transparently as it can that they are acting carefully and responsibly. Professor Peter Davies of Durham University, an adviser to the shale gas industry who describes himself as “agnostic” on the technology, says the task is to ensure that the wells that are dug are engineered properly so people can be absolutely assured that they don’t leak. “We are now talking about potentially many hundreds of wells and we need to make sure they are carefully monitored and checked,” he said. The science is “secondary”, he argues, to people’s concerns about the industry. “There are issues of trust and that the big bad oil industry is coming for you.”

Some have suggested that the UK government should “share the spoils” of revenues with the affected communities to compensate them for their grievances. There have also been calls for the country to put revenues from the new bounty into a Sovereign Fund to ensure that, unlike in the North Sea, the income from the country’s underground wealth is saved for future generations. But financial offerings are unlikely to buy off the concerned residents who fear the destruction of their neighbourhoods. From Sussex to West Lothian, the message from many is the same – the drilling isn’t wanted. For the shale gas revolution to be a success, far more will need to be done to reassure those most directly affected. «

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23