Multinational companies are targeting new swathes of central Scotland for fracking that could impact as many as a million people, according to an investigation by The Ferret.
Information released by the UK government reveals that nine companies have applied for licences to exploit shale gas beneath 1,900 square kilometres of land. Shale reserves are all centred around Glasgow and Edinburgh across Lanarkshire, Lothian and Fife.
The revelation has provoked widespread outrage, with one politician warning, “the vultures are clearly circling”. It will be up to the Scottish Government to decide whether or not to award the licenses.
In January Scottish ministers imposed a temporary moratorium on fracking while its health impacts are assessed and the public is consulted. Fracking involves pumping fluids into rock formations deep underground to cause fractures and release shale gas.
The UK government invited fracking bids under the 14th onshore oil and gas licencing round last year. Although 27 licenses were awarded in England in August 2015, none have been given in Scotland because licensing powers are in the process of being devolved to the Scottish Government.
Until now, how many companies had bid for how many licensing blocks in Scotland had been kept secret. But in response to a freedom of information request from The Ferret, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has disclosed that nine companies made bids for 19 blocks, each covering 100 square kilometres.
DECC refused, however, to name the companies, or to say where the blocks were, claiming commercial confidentiality. But companies would only have bid for areas where there was shale gas, which scientists say are all in the central belt.
According to the British Geological Survey, there are shale reserves under east Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Midlothian, north Edinburgh, East Lothian and Fife. These include communities such as Easterhouse, Hamilton, Motherwell, Airdre, Coatbridge, Bathgate, Linlithgow, Leith, Portobello, Dalkeith, Musselburgh, Rosyth, Kirkcaldy and Methil.
There is a large area of shale to the south of the Firth of Forth in East Lothian and Midlothian known in the industry as the “Gulf of Gullane sweet spot”. All these areas are in addition to the nine blocks around Falkirk for which companies have already been granted fracking licences.
Stuart Haszeldine, professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that there was no point in companies bidding for areas that were unsuitable. “In Scotland, we know where the most probable and best rocks to provide oil and gas are located underground,” he said.
The best areas outwith those for which licenses had already been awarded were clear, he suggested. “It is very likely most of the applications for shale exploitation by fracking will focus around east Glasgow, north Lanarkshire, the northwest corner of south Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Edinburgh city, southwest and south coastal Fife, Midlothian and the north west of East Lothian.”
In these regions exploratory drilling would be going one, two or sometimes three kilometres below ground, Haszeldine said. The only other areas in Scotland offered for bids under the 14th round were north of the Solway Firth, and they were not obvious shale fracking targets, though they could contain coalbed methane.
The main company to bid for new Scottish licences is INEOS, the Swiss-based multinational that runs petrochemical plants at Grangemouth. Although the company declined to tell The Ferret where it had made bids, it has previously admitted targeting Scotland.
“The vast majority of the INEOS bids are in Scotland and the North of England, where the local populations have either a mining or an industrial heritage,” said a company statement in November 2014.
INEOS chairman, Jim Ratcliffe, said he wanted the company to be “the biggest player in the UK shale gas industry”. INEOS already owns licenses around Grangemouth and in June 2015 said it was “applying for many more.”
To try and win community backing for fracking, INEOS has staged 18 public exhibitions in and around Grangemouth between September and December.
The Ferret asked 13 other companies whether they had made fracking bids for Scotland under the 14th round. Eight said they hadn’t, three failed to respond (Reach Coal Seam Gas, Aberdeen Drilling Management and Blackland Park Exploration) and two wouldn’t say: the French energy company GDF Suez and the UK firm, iGas.
Huge swathes of central Scotland are up for grabs and the vultures are clearly circling. Neil Findlay MSP
The Lothian Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, demanded that all the companies, and the areas for which they had bid, be identified. “Huge swathes of central Scotland are up for grabs and the vultures are clearly circling to share the spoils,” he said.
He criticised the Scottish Government’s position as “untenable” in the run-up to next year’s election. “They cannot hide from their duty to the Scottish people,” he said. “They must get off the fence and stop hiding behind their moratorium.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that some of the most densely populated parts of the country were now fracking targets. “Communities will be appalled to see the scale of the threat,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.
“The experience from the US and Australia shows us that the industry brings with it countless health and environmental risks, and disrupts local businesses. Commercial shale gas is simply not compatible with healthy, thriving communities.”
Bill Frew, chair of the Broad Alliance of communities across Scotland opposed to all unconventional gas extraction, said people were frustrated and angry about “fence-sitting” by Scottish ministers. “The more that communities learn about unconventional gas, the less they like it ,” he said.
The health implications from fugitive emissions due to gas extraction in a densely populated urban area simply don't bear thinking about Donald Campbell
“When local people realise the nature and scale of what is proposed, with potentially thousands of wells, and associated sprawling and dirty infrastructure, in a small and densely populated country that trades on its reputation for clean air and water, they are frankly incredulous that the SNP government continues to consider it an option.”
Donald Campbell, Chair of West Fife Villages Forum, said he would not be surprised if companies wanted to drill on brownfield sites in urban areas. Fracking could cause pollution, ill-health and an increase in seismic activity, he claimed.
“The health implications from fugitive emissions due to gas extraction in a densely populated urban area simply don’t bear thinking about,” he said. “Unborn children, the young and elderly would be especially susceptible.”
DECC’s freedom of information (FoI) response to The Ferret on 21 September 2015 said that “nine companies applied for a total of 19 blocks in Scotland during the 14th onshore licensing round”. But another FoI response from DECC included a heavily redacted email to the Scottish Government on 11 June 2015 saying that seven companies had applied for 15 blocks.
When asked to explain the discrepancy, a spokesman for DECC’s Oil and Gas Authority said: “I can confirm the number of bids was nine companies for 19 blocks.” The full texts of both FoI responses are published below.
The fracking industry said it backed the evidence-based approach being taken by the Scottish Government. “We recognise that the public has concerns about shale gas extraction and need to be reassured about safety and environmental impact,” said the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, Ken Cronin.
“Many independent reports, including the independent panel of experts set up by the Scottish Government, have commented that a robust regulatory process is in place and any risks can be managed under such a regulatory regime,” he added.
“Scotland has a long record of producing oil and gas safely for the benefit of the nation , and we trust that a proper scientific investigation and understanding of all the issues will lead to the creation of a robust onshore oil and gas industry in Scotland.”
Cronin pointed out that four-fifths of Scotland’s heat came from natural gas, but that by 2020 it could be importing three quarters of its gas from other countries that may be less stable. “Onshore gas and oil will benefit the Scottish economy, not only directly, with jobs created through oil and gas extraction, but also indirectly, as oil and gas is a critical raw material for the chemicals industry at facilities such as Grangemouth,” he said.
INEOS declined to comment. The Scottish Government pointed out that no fracking could take place while its moratorium was in place.
A government spokeswoman said: “We are taking forward our commitment to carry out one of the world’s most wide ranging research programmes into unconventional oil and gas. An extensive public consultation will also take place which will allow interested parties to express their views.”
What is Fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is a process that is used to extract natural gas trapped in small holes in rocks deep below the ground.
A borehole is sunk and then high-pressure fluids are used to force open splits in gas bearing rocks.
The gas that is produced is then returned to the surface through the borehole.
Advances in drilling technology, which allow bore holes to be drilled at an angle, or even horizontally underground, have meant that a far larger area can be commercially exploited from a single well.
These drilling techniques also mean that gas deposits that were once considered too difficult to access could now be commercially viable.
Proponents of fracking argue that it promotes energy independence and can create employment and other local economic benefits.
However, concerns over the environmental impact of the extraction technique have lead some US states, as well as a number of European countries including Scotland, to ban it on a temporary or permanent basis.
It is estimated that there could be as much as 134 trillion cubic feet of gas in the central Scotland deposits. The gas bearing rocks in these deposits are located at least 2300ft below the ground.
It is not known how much of this gas could be recovered commercially, were the Scottish Government to lift the fracking moratorium that is currently in place.
UK Government Freedom of Information response
Emails between UK and Scottish governments
Cover image: CC | Nicholas A. Tonelli
Graphic thanks to Jo Skinner.