News that there are 80 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in Scotland's Central Belt has inevitably divided opinion.
On one side are those who believe it should be exploited to the utmost for the sake of Scotland's future energy security and, on the other, those who do not believe it worth the environmental cost to extract it at all.
In reality, not much of it can be exploited anyway. This is certainly not 1970 all over again. While the figures in the British Geological Survey study sound impressive, Scotland is estimated to have only six per cent of what is present in the north of England, and it may be possible to extract only between five and ten per cent of the gas and as little as one per cent of the oil. So the question arises of how much extraction, if any, should be encouraged by the Scottish and UK governments. Exploration operations could carve up the countryside and adversely affect communities, with little ultimately to show for it.
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Concerns about the environmental costs of fracking (injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into rock to drive out the gas)are understandable and should be taken seriously. Local communities worry about its potential to trigger seismic activity and fear the pollution of ground water with fracking chemicals, not to mention the noise and air pollution created by passing trucks and the scarring of the landscape where extraction equipment is sited. Meanwhile, environmental campaigners are exasperated about the prospect of a new black gold rush happening at a time when climate scientists have made painfully clear that the world should be burning fewer fossil fuels. Is it really worth the grief to communities, the potential disruption to wildlife, the local environmental risks and the extra greenhouse gas implications to extract this product, when the potential gains are so modest? They point out that extracting shale oil and gas is particularly perverse at a time when Scotland is generating more renewable electricity than ever before and could meet 100 per cent of its electricity needs from renewables. As The Herald reports today, there has also been a leap in the amount of heat Scots produce from renewable methods.
Even so, with four-fifths of homes still using gas as a means of central heating, it must be recognised that Scotland will still need reliable supplies of gas for the foreseeable future; it is essential, however, that any fracking application is approached with the greatest caution.
The Scottish Government recently announced new planning measures for fracking requiring locals to be consulted and for buffer zones to be established between fracking operations and settlements but concerns remain that communities could still be adversely affected and that scenic land could still be open to speculative development. Fracking should only go ahead with the express support of local people and within the tightest framework of regulation. Above all, shale oil and gas must never be allowed to rival renewables as the mainstay of Scotland's energy future. A free-for-all for fossil fuel prospectors is not what Scotland needs.