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Energy needs must be met, but without ravaging our environment

CAMPAIGNERS ARE CURRENTLY jumping on the protest bandwagon trying to stop the development of ‘fracking’ – the recovery of natural gas from shale reserves. 

The USA is currently well on its way to energy independence thanks to this technology but in most of Europe it has been banned. 

 

Meanwhile here in Scotland we really should know all about the value, and the costs, of the shale reserves under our feet. After all, James ‘Paraffin’ Young set up the world’s first ever oil company in 1851 to extract oil from the huge quantities of shale that he found in West Lothian.

 

By 1900 this industry employed 4,000 men and extracted 2 million tons of shale every year; but these operations came with huge costs. All this bulky shale had to be mined from underground seams, then transported for refining, after which the spent shale was dumped onto giant slag heaps, known locally as ‘bings’ - the Edinburgh to Glasgow train still passes a set of these bings near Broxburn (the ‘five sisters’).

 

My father became a shale miner in 1919 on leaving school at age 14 and worked in this industry for 40 years until operations ceased around 1960. 

 

And all around the area where I was brought up, these huge bings of spent red shale dominated the landscape, burying good farmland, and providing an ugly reminder of our industrial heritage. 

 

And this wasn’t the only environmental price. On a cold Friday night in January 1947 an explosion ripped through a shale mine in West Calder; it took four days to put out the resulting fires after which the bodies of 15 of the miners were recovered. 

 

My father worked at this mine at the time, but was scheduled to work on the other shift - which was fortunate for my existence as I was born in 1950.

 

It’s worth considering all this environmental and other costs as we observe the (over)heated debate now underway about proposed new ‘fracking’ projects. 

 

This technique uses advanced drilling technology which is capable of punching channels throughout a seam of shale, following which water and grit is forced at high pressure, fracturing the shale and releasing trapped natural gas.

 

It’s a relatively clean technology. The wells don’t need a lot of space, and one wellhead is capable of running many wells through several seams of shale. 

 

Whatever you think of this technology we have to admit that we do need energy to keep the lights on, heat our homes, and allow us to make and transport essential goods. 

Imported oil and gas always leaves us open to political interference from regimes - such as in Russia and the Middle East - that might not always be friendly, so it is always much better to have indigenous sources of energy.

 

The Royal Academy of Engineering, in a report published last year, concluded that properly regulated there was no reason why we shouldn’t develop fracking technology in the UK.

 

But of course there are always people who will protest, particularly about new energy projects. There were massive protests, now largely forgotten, against the hydro-electric projects in the Highlands and Islands during the last century - now seen as making a huge contribution to the prosperity and development of these regions. So we need a balanced view of such developments. 

 

One thing of which we can be sure: fracking technology will never wreck our country and our environment in the way that the shale oil industry was allowed to ravage West Lothian until as recently as 50 years ago. 

 

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