Rail blast fears over gas extraction plan

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford
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NETWORK Rail has warned an energy company’s controversial plan to drill for ­methane in the Forth Valley risks causing an explosion ­beside one of Scotland’s busiest mainline railways.

Britain’s railway operator has objected to a proposal by Dart Energy to sink 14 wells in the Central Belt as part of a £300 million deal to supply gas to Scottish and Southern Energy.

Dart Energy’s plans have alarmed locals, who fear the new extraction technique, which has similarities to fracking and is known as coal bed methane production, could cause pollution and harm the health people in the area.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal safety fears have also been raised by rail engineers who have warned explosions could be caused by uncontrolled emissions of the flammable gas at two sites beside the Larbert to Stirling line.

Network Rail has lodged a formal objection with Falkirk Council planners raising its concerns about the Dart Energy project, which is planned for Letham Moss, near Airth, Stirlingshire.

The contents of Network Rail’s letter of objection came to light following a Freedom of Information request by campaigners against so-called “unconventional gas” extraction in Scotland.

The Network Rail letter said: “Our asset protection engineers and fire safety engineer have concerns regarding the possible risk of explosion at two of the surface sites adjacent to the railway and the installation of the proposed methane gas pipe beneath the private underbridge.

“To remove our objection, the developer must conclusively demonstrate that there will be no increased risk of injury to the travelling public or possible damage to the railway and its associated infrastructure and provide details of what fire safety measures/provisions are proposed to prevent the risk of explosion.”

Dart Energy said yesterday it was working with Network Rail to ensure the project was safe, but those fighting the plans remained unconvinced.

“I am worried about the methane escaping from the wells, which has potential to cause explosions,” said campaigner Ed ­Pybus. “We have seen in Australia that 44 per cent of well-heads in Queensland were leaking methane.

“We are also worried about the effect on the environment because methane has 70 times the greenhouse effect that carbon dioxide has.”

Maria Montinaro of Shield­hill and California Community Council, near Falkirk, said: “This is a concern. Wherever there is methane there is a concern about fugitive emissions.

“The problem is we’re ignorant in a sense about all this. This is the first commercial production of methane in the UK.”

Last week Montinaro joined with other UK campaigners, who travelled to Downing Street to inform Prime Minister David Cameron of their fears that new coal bed methane production and shale extraction projects would harm the environment.

Last week Chancellor George Osborne said the UK government was still consulting on tax incentives for unconventional gas extraction and confirmed there would be a single office to regulate it. The Scottish Government has said it recognised the “future potential” for unconventional gas, but shale gases and coal-bed methane are not included in its energy plans.

Dart Energy wants to release methane held in coal seams using the pressure of underground saltwater found around 800 metres below Airth. This would be done by sinking wells, then drilling horizontally along the seams.

The pressure is lowered by pumping the water out of the coal resulting in the release of methane. Dart said a well can produce gas for up to 30 years. During its lifetime, a well can produce up to 1.5 billion standard cubic feet of methane.

It differs from fracking, widely used in America, which has been linked to small earthquakes in Lancashire during UK test. With fracking, fluid is pumped underground at high pressure to fracture rock to release gas. As far as Airth is concerned, Dart said there was no fracking “proposed in this application”.

Campaigners, however, are concerned current plans could see underground water, which could contain toxins and heavy metals, being discharged into the River Forth. Dart has said that water pumped out of the coal seams will be purified before being discharged.

A Dart Energy spokesman said: “The objection from Network Rail is standard procedure based on proximity of ­operations as part of the consultation process. Network Rail said they would remove the objection when we demonstrate there will be no risk of injury to the travelling public or damage to the railway.

“We will put whatever is required in place to comply with Network Rail’s rigorous technical requirements.”