Shale: The Scots were 150 years ahead of us!


Last week I made a flying visit (literally) to Scotland.  Arriving on Thursday in Edinburgh from Brussels, I did a meeting in Perth that day and another in Edinburgh on Friday.  In between, I met a number of journalists, as well as some contacts in industry (of which more at a later time).

We also found time to visit the Almond Valley Museum in West Lothian, where to my astonishment I discovered the history of shale exploitation in Scotland.  I tend to think of shale gas as a newly-fledged 21st century industry, so it came as a shock to find that the Scots were exploiting shale – and shale gas – as early as 1866 (so OK, maybe I should say 147 years, not 150 years).

Of course they were not using the sort of techniques we use today.  They were in fact simply mining shale, rather in the same way as we were mining coal.  The distinctive orange-pink shale spoil heaps, known locally as “bings”, are there to this day, although they’ve been partly landscaped and quarried.

Back in 1850, a Scottish entrepreneur James “Paraffin” Young patented a process for extracting paraffin from coal.  This was a time when candles were slowly being replaced by gas or paraffin lamps, and accelerating industrialisation was increasing the need for artificial light.  In the 1860s, Young started to exploit Scottish shale oil for paraffin.

Young’s process captured the gas from shale, and used it in the process to extract the oil from the mined shale.  The industry throve for decades, but became less relevant after the Second World War.  The last plant closed as recently as 1962.

Mining shale was a nasty business.  As a result of prolonged contact with shale, the miners suffered from horrible diseases – eye ulcers, skin lesions, and some conditions too nasty to mention in a blog designed for fire-side reading.   Of course it was not just shale mining.  Other serious diseases were associated with coal mining, including pneumoconiosis.

We should be delighted that we now have techniques for extracting gas from shale (and indeed from coal) that do not require mining per se, and enable us to achieve the economic benefits of energy production without the dirty and dangerous work of mining underground.  There was great angst in Scotland, and across the coal-fields of England, when the mining industry closed in the eighties.  It is therefore wonderful news that we can now achieve all the economic benefits of mining, without the fearful downsides of dust and darkness and disease which have dogged miners for centuries.

Naturally I was asked by Scottish journalists about the potential for shale gas in Scotland, so I was glad to be able to turn to the map on Page 11 of the UKIP Energy Policy booklet (latest version), which clearly shows a band of shale across Scotland’s Central Belt.  We don’t yet know the scale of shale gas resources in Scotland, nor do we know how recoverable they are – we need to get on with exploratory drilling and find out.  But the signs are very promising.

This all poses a moral challenge for Alex Salmond of the SNP.  He’s already made the rather curious (and frankly lunatic) decision that Scotland should go 100% renewable by 2020, whilst at the same time basing his economic hopes for an independent Scotland on dwindling supplies of North Sea oil and gas – as though fossil fuels burned outside Scotland would not affect his fears of global warming.  Now he looks set to have to make the same illogical decision about shale gas.

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4 Responses to Shale: The Scots were 150 years ahead of us!

  1. Mike Stallard says:

    Roger – your blog is truly disturbing! You are making all the right noises.
    As someone who is naturally Conservative, I am terribly disappointed with the Conservatives who, on the whole, are not making all the right noises. This especially hurts when I see our local (Conservative) MP making waves in parliament by asking the “wrong” questions.
    So please say something truly silly! I find your support for tracking inspiring, actually. I find your attack on windmills realistic and down to earth. I find your inside knowledge and very hard work impressive. So please stop!

  2. To be fair, David Cameron is making the right sort of noises on shale gas. It’s just that he’s not doing anything about it.

  3. Donald Gatt says:

    Excellent article on Shale, well done.

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