Fracking the Central Belt

December 2014

By Helen-Jane Shearer

Talk of fracking for gas and oil has crept up to Scotland with the whole of the central belt currently available to license for exploratory drilling. This map from Department of Energy and Climate Change shows the areas most likely to be exploited (grey hashed areas) as identified by the British Geological Survey, which includes a large part of the Central Belt. Yellow areas are already licensed.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) involves injecting water and other chemicals at high pressure deep underground to expand fractures in the rock to release trapped oil or gas. Rather than existing in an underground reservoir, this “unconventional” oil or gas is trapped throughout the rock - like in all the holes in a sponge - so many incursions into the rock are necessary to release and collect it. A second and very common type of unconventional gas is coal bed methane (CBM) where methane trapped in coal seams is accessed by pumping out the ground water that is trapping the gas; some fracking often follows at a later stage in the well's lifecycle.

In countries where fracking and CBM extraction has been carried out onshore there has been massive community protest on the grounds of public health and environment. Communities in Airth (near Falkirk) and Canonbie (Dumfries and Galloway) are currently battling against further CBM drilling. Objections include: contamination of ground water (once the fracking fluids have been injected they remain underground, and some are known to be toxic); industrialisation of the landscape (vast number of wells needed especially for CBM); impact on houses and land (earthquake risk); distraction from investment in renewable energy sources. Fracking has been banned totally in five European countries so far. Prime motivators to press ahead with it here are that it could reduce our reliance on imported gas short term, and decision-makers at government and top industry level stand to gain financially from the industry.

99% of respondents to a UK Government consultation (May to August this year) opposed any fracking in the UK. The consultation was actually on a change to trespass laws (the Infrastructure Bill) to allow firms to drill under people's home without permission, so the results were dismissed on the grounds that the respondents hadn't directly answered the questions about trespass laws. The legislation is currently going ahead and will remove householders' rights to protest to drilling under their homes (and their right to be notified about it).

The Scottish government has condemned the Infrastructure Bill, and although it cannot control licensing it could impose planning controls that would make it impossible for licensees to get planning permission from local councils. One suggestion so far has been to impose a buffer zone 2km from residential areas, although there is as yet no definitive policy besides recognition of the need for much tighter regulation of the industry.

Interactive map showing areas of potential exploration

© Lothian Publications Ltd