Leaders: Fracking’s potential must be examined

Environmentalists have welcomed the report. Picture: Gareth Easton
Environmentalists have welcomed the report. Picture: Gareth Easton
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Geologists reckon that, trapped in the shale rocks across central Scotland, there may be anything between 49 and 134 trillion cubic feet of gas.

So why are environmentalists cheering this finding as apparently proving their case that Scotland should steer well clear of fracking, the controversial method of drilling into and extracting such hydrocarbons?

The volumes sound enormous, but practical experience from America argues that fracking extracts only about one tenth of any shale resource. On a mid-estimate of 80 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, that means only eight trillion cubic feet may be produced. To put that into perspective, Britain currently consumes about 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas per year so the potential Scottish resource adds up to slightly more than two years of UK supply.

In terms of Scotland’s supply, the oil and gas industry reckons that it adds up to more than 40 years of what Scotland now annually consumes. This is a little ingenuous – if there was a ready source of natural gas other than the presently dwindling North Sea resource, gas consumption by such as the Grangemouth petrochemical works would rise, as would probably also the use of gas by electricity generators. Even if that adds up to only 20 years’ supply it is still a substantial resource.

Yet to be determined is whether commercial exploitation is feasible. American shale gas deposits, the harnessing of which has sent the price of gas in North America tumbling, are generally much thicker and less fractured than the Scottish deposits identified by the British Geological Survey.

That implies that wells drilled into Scottish shale may produce less. The tightness of the shale, which determines the rate at which gas flows, is also largely unknown. So there is much exploratory activity which needs to be done before the commercial viability of Scotland’s shale gas will be known with any confidence.

Since many environmentalists are opposed to tapping new sources of hydrocarbons in principle, the exposing of these practical problems by the geologists serves only to confirm their view that no good environmental or commercial purpose can be served by fracking in Scotland.

Granted, there is a way to go before the fracking industry can provide the public with confidence that the process can be undertaken without any pollution of water supplies or other risks to public health and safety. The relative smallness of Scotland’s shale deposits compared with those in the north of England suggests that commercial exploitation will happen there first. That’s no bad thing as it will test out all the problems. But it would be foolish to say fracking is not going to happen in Scotland.

No-one can say with certainty, whether for reasons of supply security or economic need, that this gas won’t be needed in ten, 20, or 30 years’ time. Further exploration and testing should be done.

Muslim states must act to help Iraq

The box of horrors that has been opened in the Middle East makes Pandora’s seem like a picnic hamper. Now the insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have declared the territory they control – western Syria and Eastern Iraq – to be a Caliphate.

To poorly attuned western ears, this may sound just like a name. But, regrettably, it is a lot more than that. Put simply it is a theocracy – all people within it are ruled by a single leader, the Caliph, who is regarded as a successor to the Prophet Mohammed and sovereign over all followers. In western terms it doesn’t even meet the civilised standards of a medieval monarchy.

Moreover, establishment of a Caliphate is a clear sign of total rejection of all western and colonial influences with, in this case, the embracing of modern social media communications to spread a religious rule which makes the Taleban look like Renaissance men. A dark horror could be descending on this part of the Middle East.

It is manifestly obvious that the vast majority of the people of Iraq, certainly all Shia Muslims and probably a majority of the Sunnis who may have initially welcomed the disruption to the corrupt Shia state wrought by Isis, do not want this. It is a state of existence than can only be desired by fanatics.

It could be that the Sunnis who joined Isis as a rebellion against the Iraqi government post- Saddam will all now abandon it. What western powers can do about it is uncertain. The relevant levers look to be in the hands of other Muslim states in the region. It is in their hands to help Iraq remove this threat. It is also in their interests, for the Caliphate looms over their land and people too.