The billionaire who wants to establish a large scale fracking industry in Scotland says he has received private assurances from the SNP that the party is "not against" the controversial technique.
Jim Ratcliffe, the chief executive and chairman of chemical giant Ineos, said that despite the Scottish Government imposing a moratorium on fracking and the SNP presenting itself as against unconventional oil and gas during the recent general election campaign, he believed an onshore shale gas industry could potentially be up and running on a commercial scale by 2018.
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Ineos, which holds fracking exploration licences across 700 square miles of the country, is to seek formal permission to begin test drilling and seismic testing imminently, and is confident that the work will not breach the moratorium as it will not involve actual fracking.
On this basis, the company believes test drilling for shale gas across central Scotland is on course to begin within a year.
Meanwhile Tom Crotty, director of INEOS, said that despite opposition from many SNP members, it would be "logical" for its supporters to get behind a large scale fracking industry in Scotland, as it would bolster tax revenues and therefore the economic case for independence.
The senior industry figures spoke to The Herald in China yesterday where the first two of eight state-of-the-art ships that will transport huge quantities of US shale gas to a giant purpose built tank in Grangemouth from next year were officially named following their completion. The pair repeatedly reiterated the firm's determination to also create an indigenous fracking industry, as well as making use of imported US gas.
Mr Ratcliffe, one of the world's leading industrialists, said that it was no exaggeration to claim Grangemouth could become the 'new Aberdeen' as a European energy leader, should Scotland embrace fracking. He described shale gas and the new ships to transport it from America as "saviours" of the sprawling Grangemouth industrial complex which he said would otherwise have been closed down but now has a secure future for between 25 and 35 years.
"All the available information, today, is that there is a good indication that there is quite a lot of shale lying underneath central Scotland," he said. "We need to do a bit of seismic [testing] - you get these machines that thump the ground and get echoes coming back - which gives you lots of data about the layers and what it's made of. Secondly, you want to be able to drill some holes and take some core samples. Then, you know what you've got, and in a sense Scotland can decide whether it wants fracking or not.
"[The Scottish Government] are being quite clear. What they've said to us is they're not against fracking. But what they do need to do is get comfortable with whether they're happy with the risks of fracking in Scotland. They want to spend a couple of years understanding it in more detail. I think that's a responsible thing for them to do and say. We don't need to do any fracking for the next couple of years. What we'd like to do is just drill a couple of holes, do the seismic, and just find out what's down there."
Mr Ratcliffe added that a shale gas industry could secure Scotland's energy supply, with one shale site in Pennsylvania producing two-and-a-half times more gas than the entire UK consumes.
He added: "If there is good shale under Scotland... people don't realise how significant these things can be. Scotland does need a viable energy policy. The North Sea, whether they like it or not, is declining and it's declining very rapidly and the amount of investment in the North Sea has reduced dramatically in the last couple of years. Scotland needs to think about where it goes when the North Sea has declined even further. It will still need to heat the houses and run the factories."
During the general election campaign, the SNP produced official badges and posters with the phrase 'Frack Off' alongside a party logo, which the party claimed were a reference to the moratorium. Many nationalist candidates, now MPs, said they opposed fracking in their election literature. The Scottish Government has yet to publish detailed information on further research and a public consultation that will take place on fracking, although it is anticipated that the process will not be completed until after next year's Holyrood election. Ineos hopes to begin seismic testing and test drilling within 12 to 18 months, with a fracking industry and multiple fracking wells potentially up and running within three to five years if results are encouraging.
The Scottish Government has the power to block fracking developments through the planning process, and with full powers over licensing set to be devolved to Holyrood, the decision over whether to allow fracking will rest in Edinburgh.
Mr Crotty said fracking should be "top of the agenda" for those who support independence, despite Ineos encountering strong opposition from many SNP members during a series of town-hall style community engagement events it has set up in a bid to win over a sceptical public.
"There is no no fracking, frack off [SNP] policy," Mr Crotty said. "It's definitely not their official policy. But obviously some of their own members choose to do their own thing.
"It's an opportunity for Scotland to have a new income stream. Bear in mind that 62 per cent of the value of what comes out of the ground goes straight into the pocket of government. The tax is enormous, it's a huge earner for Government, they earn more than anybody.
"Generally you find that the left - the hard left - is where the core of the opposition exists. They, politically, are the same people who would fight to the death to keep the coal mines open. The coal mines are like amputation, compared to microsurgery if you look at fracking. The fear is based on misinformation. We've got to get the facts out there.
"We're never going to swing the general population overnight. What you could hope to do is work really closely with local people, to get to a point where they're comfortable enough to say 'we'll give it a go'. Then the people next door will look at that and say actually it's not anything like as bad as we thought - the world hasn't collapsed, the houses haven't fallen in, and they've just had a big cheque and are building a new community centre."
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "The Scottish Government is officially neither for nor against fracking, that is after all why we are having a moratorium while the evidence is examined and the public are asked what they think. So, in some respects, Jim Ratcliffe is merely stating the obvious. We don't share Ineos' rosy view of the world, we're convinced that Scotland will move to a full ban on fracking when we've looked at the evidence of health impacts, environmental contamination and climate change emissions that this industry has brought elsewhere."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "This simply reflects what we have already said publicly on this issue - no fracking can or will take place in Scotland while the moratorium we have announced remains in place, a policy that has received wide support from both environmental groups and industry.
"We are taking a careful, considered and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas, and the moratorium and the planned public consultation will allow all stakeholders and local communities to have their say."