It could provide enough gas alone to meet Scotland’s needs for the next half-century and a major wave of drilling exploration is looming to establish its commercial viability.
But the findings re-ignited the battle over the controversial use of “fracking” to get at underground deposits of shale gas. Environmental groups warned against the impact on global warming of extracting a new generation of carbon fuels.
The shale resources are more “modest” than originally thought, according to the British Geological Survey (BGS) report published yesterday. It was commissioned to assess the potential reserves of fuel in Scotland.
But a new round of drilling licences will be issued “shortly”, with central Scotland expected to be among the three UK areas hosting 20-40 test wells in the next two to three years. The move follows a shale gas revolution in the United States in recent years, which has seen energy prices tumble.
UK energy minister Michael Fallon, in Edinburgh to launch the survey, said: “We know shale gas alone won’t be able to supply all our energy needs, but the environmentally responsible exploration of shale gas could contribute to our energy mix.
“Only the broad shoulders of the UK can attract investment in new energy sources and maintain the UK’s position as one of the world’s great energy hubs, generating energy and generating jobs.”
He also said it would “irresponsible” not to push ahead with tests of fracking to reduce the UK’s reliance on “unstable” countries around the world for energy imports.
The BGS report estimated that Scotland’s Midland Valley has shale gas resources of 80 trillion cubic feet, which is lower than the north of England. But there are also about six billion barrels of shale oil, which is higher than in areas explored south of the Border. The Midland Valley of Scotland lies between the Highland Boundary Fault and the Southern Upland Fault. Some of the oldest rocks in the valley region date from around 470 million years ago, experts say.
With Scotland only using about 170 billion cubic feet of gas a year, the estimated 10 per cent of recoverable deposits would be enough to meet gas demand here for 46 years.
Shale gas is controversial because it is recovered through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process which involves pumping a high-pressure water mixture in to the rock to release the gas inside. There have been complaints it has caused earth tremors and claims that it can contaminate water supplies, although the industry insists the process has been going on for years without incident.
A separate BGS survey carried out last year in the Bowland Shale area in the north of England found significantly higher gas resources than sen in Scotland. The Weald Basin in the south of England has also been surveyed, but was found to have less oil than Scotland.
Mr Fallon now expects “strong interest” from energy firms to develop sites in all three regions. He said: “These are the three most promising areas for shale gas and oil potential in the UK … and that’s where I expect the bulk of the licence applications to focus on.”
The survey found deposits around Glasgow and Edinburgh, but Professor Mike Stephenson of the BGS said it is “difficult to imagine” extraction in high population area and feels it would be “highly unlikely”.
He said: “It has been done in Texas, but we’re not Texas.”
Shale gas has a long history in Scotland. By the turn of the 20th century, there were 100 shale oil works and numerous gas wells have been drilled, with the Airth coalbed methane field still in operation.
The bulk of the current shale oil deposits are in Alloa, Falkirk, Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and Fife. Shale gas is spread across a wider area between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Although the UK government issues the licences to drill, companies need planning permission from local councils to work on a site, and the Scottish Government is the ultimate authority if it goes to appeal.
Holyrood energy minister Fergus Ewing said the Scottish Government had established an expert scientific panel on unconventional oil and gas to examine the issue. He said: “At this time there are no proposals which involve the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques in Scotland. Proposals for coalbed methane or shale gas production will be studied on their merits and considered through the normal planning process.”
New planning rules introduced in Scotland last week also mean developers need “explicit planning consent” before they start fracking.
Scottish Greens leader Patrick Harvie said the relatively modest findings seen in the BGS survey mean shale should not figure in Scotland’s energy future.
He said: “As communities across Scotland realise the risk to their local environments from the prospect of fracking, and as climate science tells us we must start to leave unburnt fossil fuels in the ground, it’s clear any such developments will face strong opposition.”
Scottish Labour’s energy spokesman, Tom Greatrex MP, said shale gas extraction should only happen with “robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and local consent”.
Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser said the BGS report suggested there is enough shale gas potential to merit more exploration.
However, green group Friends of the Earth said the latest report was “good news” for Scottish communities faced with the threat of fracking, while WWF Scotland said it should lead to a commitment that there will be no fracking north of the Border.
WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said: “It’s clear that there’s not going to be a shale gas or oil bonanza in Scotland any time soon … it’s time for Scottish ministers to commit to start leaving some fossil fuels, including shale gas, in the ground.”
For and against: Shale gas sites would support Scots jobs but is it worth the environmental risk?
For: Ken Cronin
Scotland has been powering Britain for two centuries, be it coal from its collieries to oil in the North Sea and the largest onshore wind farm in the UK.
The British Geological Survey has estimated there is 1,400 trillion cubic feet of gas and more than ten billion barrels of oil under the UK, much of it in Scotland. Harnessing this will bring jobs, skills and income to local communities.
Four-fifths of the UK’s heat, nearly a third of our electricity and a large number of everyday items come from natural gas. Gas and oil are important feedstocks for the chemical industry, which supports tens of thousands of Scottish jobs and contributes billions of pounds a year to the Scottish economy.
Scotland needs an energy mix which includes gas if we are to cut our dependence on coal, the least environmentally friendly energy source, and keep the lights on. But with most of that gas supply now coming from outside this country, and the North Sea dwindling, we need once again to start producing our own.
We have been producing oil and gas onshore in Scotland since 1851 and the industry is committed to extracting gas and oil safely, with the minimum of disruption for communities. Lord Smith, the outgoing chairman of the Environment Agency, recently joined leading scientific and industry experts – including the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Geological Society, WaterUK, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management, Public Health England and Durham University – in concluding that any potential risks associated with hydraulic fracturing are low and can be managed in a properly regulated industry.
Scotland can be at the heart of the development of shale gas, a critical energy source for the nation at a time when we need it most.
• Ken Cronin is chief executive of oil and gas industry body the United Kingdom Onshore Operators’ Group (UKOOG)
Against: Mary Church
Scotland is an increasingly unattractive prospect for the shale industry, with low headline gas estimates and even smaller potential returns. This is good news for the large number of communities across Scotland faced with the threat of fracking under UK government plans to license sites in the Central Belt.
The British Geological Survey (BGS) study shows shale gas and oil will do nothing for energy security, won’t bring down bills and certainly isn’t worth the risk. The estimates in the study mean that the amount of recoverable shale gas in the Central Belt is likely to be extremely low, with BGS estimating that there is only around 5 per cent of the level found in northern England.
The report also indicated a potential shale oil resource of six billion barrels. Only a very small proportion would be economically extractable, so any production in Scotland would be trivial compared with the official estimate for recoverable oil in North Sea of 24 billion barrels.
The UK government is expected to announce the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round imminently, in which 20,000 square km in Scotland could be offered for exploration and production.
Even if the survey had shown that we were sitting on hundreds of years’ worth of shale gas, climate science tells us we would have to leave it where it was to avoid catastrophic global warming.
However, Westminster’s misguided incentivising for companies to explore for shale gas and oil means we could still see operators trying their luck in Scotland in the next licensing round. This could mean hundreds of wells fracked, only to demonstrate that there is no economically viable resource.
The Scottish Government needs to ban unconventional gas extraction altogether, focusing instead on making the most of our abundant renewable resources.
• Mary Church is head of campaigns for green group Friends of the Earth Scotland