Leaders: We ignore shale gas at our peril

FRACKING is a technology that, like all energy sources, provokes passionate views, for and against.

Nobody takes a more hostile view of fracking than residents in areas where exploratory wells are being sunk in search of “unconventional gas” deposits, a controversy that is now raging in central Scotland where Dart Energy has begun exploration, against the objections of 2,500 people. In fact Dart has given a guarantee that, for technical reasons, it has no intention of using the fracking technique at the Falkirk site. But it seems likely fracking will come to Scotland eventually.

The objections to the technique are alarming: it is accused of causing earthquakes and potentially poisoning the water supply. If unconventional gas were to be exploited in central Scotland, there are fears that pumping underground deposits of salt water into the Firth of Forth could create pollution.

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The technology is formally known as hydraulic fracturing and entails mixing water with sand and chemicals and injecting it at high pressure into a wellbore to fracture underground rock and release shale gas or other exploitable deposits. Although it has only recently gained a high profile, it has been in use since the 1940s. The risk of minor earthquakes appears to be real: fracking was the “highly probable” cause of an earthquake in Lancashire that measured 2.3 on the Richter scale. There have, too, been documented cases of groundwater contamination and some of the chemicals used are carcinogenic, with unknown long-term effects on public health.

These considerations require to be scrupulously and objectively assessed, as well as the prospects of neutralising them by strict regulation. But these negative aspects of the unconventional gas industry also need to be weighed against considerable arguments in its favour.

In the United States, the large-scale extraction of unconventional gas has halved energy bills, at a time when Scottish bills are soaring, and fracking will eventually account for almost 70 per cent of natural gas development in North America. This is not a resource Scotland can ignore.

South of the Border, official resistance to fracking is diminishing in the light of energy realities. Unconventional gas reserves in England appear to be greater than in Scotland, but there are commercially viable deposits across the Central Belt. If development is impeded, there is a very real danger the 
cutting-edge engineering expertise based on Aberdeen could be drawn south of the Border. With North Sea stocks depleting, that risks the prospect of Aberdeen losing its pre-eminence in the energy industry and the wealth it generates.

Yet a Scottish Government source admits that unconventional gas, because its reserves are mainly in England, is not a priority, despite known deposits in Scotland and commercial interest in exploiting them. What kind of nationalism is that? The SNP government’s ambition to have all Scottish electricity generated by renewables by 2020 is proving hugely expensive and probably unattainable. A two-year study by the John Muir Trust has shown Scottish wind turbines operate, on average, at just 24 per cent of capacity. The Scottish Government has refused to countenance renewing nuclear power. The only secure future for Scotland’s energy needs lies in a mixed policy: nuclear, conventional gas, unconventional gas and renewables. Putting all our energy eggs in one basket is a recipe for financial disaster and dependence on non-Scottish sources to keep the lights on.

Prey birds flying high

One of the great conservation success stories in Scotland in recent years has been the return of birds of prey in numbers that allow everyone the chance to see and experience these magnificent creatures. Even on the fringes of our towns and cities species such as buzzards are once again becoming a common and thrilling sight. That numbers of birds of prey – such as golden eagles, sea eagles, red kites and hen harriers – declined for most of the last two centuries was partly because of a loss of habitat, but also because of some deliberate targeting by gamekeepers anxious to protect the stocks of red grouse on which their livelihood depends. Much of that persecution is now, thankfully, historical and the professionalisation of the gamekeeping trade encouraged by the Scottish Gamekeepers Federation is helping to keep the rate of modern-day persecution down to relatively low levels. The key is peaceful co-existence and, as we report today on page 7, new research by the respected and influential Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, shows that hen harriers and grouse can thrive in harmony if the right management techniques of diversionary feeding are employed. It is to be hoped that, as the Trust suggests, landowners and their staff throughout rural Scotland will take the lessons on board; every bird of prey lost is a blot on our beautiful landscape.