Joyce McMillan: Scotland at an energy crossroads

Scotland may be rich in shales gas, but the extraction of it could be fraught with hazards. Picture: Getty
Scotland may be rich in shales gas, but the extraction of it could be fraught with hazards. Picture: Getty
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TAKE THE train from Edinburgh to Glasgow – by the northern route through Falkirk, or the southern one through Bathgate – and you find yourself passing through a landscape shaped and still scarred by the huge industrial revolution that swept through central Scotland between 1700 and 1900.

There are the coal bings of West Lothian, now grassed over; there are canals and old railway lines, and down on Carron shore near Grangemouth, the remains of one of Britain’s oldest oil shale industries, and what was once its biggest ironworks.

The sense of having left this industrial past behind us has been a key part of Scotland’s changing sense of its own identity over the past forty years. For good or ill, we seemed to have lost the old, dirty, heavy industries, the coal, steel and shipbuilding that created our hard men and shaped our working-class culture.

The work created as part of Glasgow’s iconic year as European City of Culture, in 1990, was in some ways a long elegy for that past; a coming-to-terms with the idea that we now had to make things new.

So we started to imagine a future that would be clean, green and sustainable, built around Scotland’s well-deserved image as a beautiful, unspoiled and relatively quiet place, on the northern edge of a crowded continent.

And it all seemed, too, to make some kind of economic sense; it’s only a few years since international experts were referring to Scotland as a potential “Saudi Arabia” of the age of renewables, a place so rich in wind, wave and tidal power that we might become world leaders in generating the energy of the future.

In the last half-decade, though, the global energy scene has experienced a sudden and decisive change, thanks to the technology called “fracking.” The word – short for “hydraulic fracturing” – must be one of the ugliest in the dictionary; and if the sound is unattractive, the process it describes also seems exceptionally violent. Essentially, it involves the injection of high-pressure water and chemicals deep into underground shale deposits, to break them up and release trapped natural gas.

It generates energy that is much cheaper than other fossil fuels or renewables, and is cleaner – in terms of carbon emissions – than coal or oil. And it is widely credited with the recent signs of recovery in the American economy, as the fracking industry drives down energy prices, puts more money in the pockets of American companies and consumers, and creates tens of thousands of jobs wherever it goes.

Now of course it’s tempting for those of us who are interested in a decent and sustainable future to dismiss the whole fracking boom as just another symptom of hydrocarbon madness. The long-term impacts of widespread fracking are simply unknown. There seems little chance that the powerful chemicals used in the process, including known carcinogens, will not find their way eventually into ground water sources, polluting them for decades to come; and as for its impact on global warming, it is truly frightening – despite the slightly cleaner carbon profile of shale gas – to think of a planet already on the brink of devastating climate change pouncing so gleefully on yet another source of fossil fuel.

Yet when it comes to practical decisions about this new source of energy, it is already clear that there is no chance of humanity turning its back on this new wave of cheap energy, and that truth presents the Scottish Government with a uniquely difficult choice. For by a sharp, ironic twist of history, it seems Scotland is quite rich in shale-gas potential, with the main deposits lying just where the old industrialists of the 18th and 19th centuries might have guessed they would, along the Forth-Clyde Valley, south towards Dumfries, and north-east towards Fife and Aberdeenshire. According to a report published this week by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the development of fracking could eventually benefit the Scottish economy by up to £5 billion a year; and the whole enterprise is bound to seem tempting to a cash-strapped government, not least because of Scotland’s existing expertise in gas and oil technology, and of the danger of being left dependent on imported energy, in a world increasingly fuelled by cheap fracked gas.

It would be unwise, though, for Scotland to plunge into the fracking business without first considering what we lose, in abandoning the dream of a future powered almost entirely by renewables. The green energy industry itself, of course, has become tainted in recent years by some ugly forms of corporate empire-building, fuelled by ill-directed government subsidy; the idea that a wind-power economy can be built on huge, corporately-owned onshore windfarms of giant 400-foot turbines, themselves produced and installed at huge environmental cost, has gone a long way towards discrediting the whole enterprise.

There is, though – given the right scale and community ownership of renewable sources – something infinitely attractive about the idea of an economy that is better at conserving energy, less profligate with it, lighter in its touch on the planet, and more certain of its long-term future.

The green energy dream is one that fits Scotland’s landscape, plays to its unique strengths, and matches the 21st century image it was starting to build for itself; the plunge into fracking and shale-gas exploitation, by contrast, seems in many ways like a return to the past, and we should not discount the psychological and moral costs of making that U-turn.

The SNP Government, of course, is likely – in this as in so many other areas – to argue that we can have the best of both worlds, with both fracking and renewable energy in our 21st century power portfolio. Out there in the real world, though, where energy prices are set, the availability of cheap gas worldwide will make investment in expensive renewables schemes less economically attractive by the day. Scotland stands, in other words, at a frightening crossroads between what seems economically unavoidable in the medium term, and what seems right for this country, in the long term; rather Alex Salmond than me, as he ponders which way to turn, and tries to ensure that in choosing the path paved with energy-industry gold, we don’t render the other one impassable, for all time.