SHOULD Scotland join the dash for shale gas?
To some extent we have already been there and done that.
In 1851, chemist James 'Paraffin' Young opened the world's first oil refinery near Bathgate and started extracting oil from shale beneath West Lothian. The industry he founded lasted 100 years and mined some 164 million tons of oil shale.
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Fast forward to 2014, and there is heated debate about whether the modest shale reserves beneath Scotland's Midland Valley, running under Glasgow, Falkirk, Edinburgh and off into the Firth of Forth, could add to the UK's energy mix.
As an academic, I believe shale gas should be seriously explored as an energy resource, but with two caveats. First, that it is part of a longer-term policy that includes more renewables. Secondly, that we carry out informed research before any exploitation is licensed. In this way we may avoid some of the mistakes made in America, such us drilling over an unnecessarily wide area.
Less than 3 per cent of the world's energy comes from renewables, while 87 per cent is from fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. This can't be turned around overnight, even though Scotland is generating record amounts of renewable electricity. As a transition, gas is a far cleaner and more cost-effective energy source than coal or oil. In particular, it emits much less CO² so is better for the environment.
The estimated eight trillion cubic feet of recoverable shale gas reserves beneath Scotland is not an insignificant amount; nor is it huge. It is on a par with several large gas fields in the North Sea. Clearly, any shale gas industry in Scotland would have to be tightly regulated and subject to strict Government controls.
The opportunity for Scotland, in my opinion, is capitalising on our huge knowledge base in this field. The Institute of Petroleum Engineering I lead at Heriot-Watt University is one of the world's top five hubs of expertise in petroleum research. We were set up in 1975 when the first oil was produced from the North Sea and generate world-class research in areas related to hydrocarbon exploration, recovery and well efficiency.
Heriot-Watt University also has its own Energy Academy, with research excellence in subjects from marine energy to energy economics. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University, Musselburgh, are also leaders in renewable energy, carbon capture and sustainable construction.
Together we are one component of the wider Edinburgh Science Triangle, a collaboration of four universities, two leading agritech institutes and seven science parks, including Heriot-Watt Research Park, that forms one of the top 10 research and development locations in Europe. This world-class science and technology cluster, combined with large financial and computing sectors, makes Edinburgh the ideal location to develop the technology to harness alternative assets and plan the future energy network.
Through the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre, administered from Heriot-Watt, we are part of a new academic-industry partnership that includes the universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Aberdeen, Robert Gordon, Dundee, Stirling and the Highlands and Islands. Collectively, there is huge expertise across the energy spectrum, including efficiency of energy systems, energy policy and climate change.
This rich seam of expertise has been built up over many years but it needs research funding to sustain it. I believe the "shale gas rush" in Scotland and across Europe could provide an answer. If the Scottish Government, leading the way for others, insisted that an amount equivalent to three per cent of all shale gas exploration costs was put into university research, it would deliver a huge boost to our economy and international knowledge credentials.
It would put Scotland at the vanguard of best practice and excellence and could fund innovative new research into topics such as energy and environmental efficiency. This expertise is a hugely valuable export for Scotland and can be sold globally, whether or not Scotland's shale reserves are ever exploited.