How coastal paradises became coal gas experiments

I moved to the seaside when I was three months pregnant with my first child, filled with dreams of bringing up my family in a beautiful outdoors environment as part of a community that was creating a sustainable world for the next generation.

Like most of my generation, we barely scraped into the bracket of ‘homeowner’ at all.  Despite both of us working good jobs, cycling everywhere, not being big consumers, eating locally produced food, we were so skint that even after years of saving and planning, we knew we’d only ever be able to afford a small flat.  Not a castle. No rose garden, no garden in fact, but we lucked out and found somewhere beautiful and wholesome by the sea.  The dream really had come true.  Or so we had hoped.

People in our coastal towns care deeply about the place where they live, whether they are incomers or from generations back. We are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, journalists…there is much expertise and experience, wisdom and good judgement, energy and commitment in our towns. We have a personal stake in seeing our community through the long term. We will directly bear the consequences of whatever happens here. We will be the ones to pick up the pieces or celebrate in our achievements.

An increasing number of us have become concerned because we have discovered there are two pieces of legislation being forced upon us, regardless of our wishes. Many of us began gathering together late last year to begin to discuss some of these issues, and we realised that we need to take the opportunity to create the kind of community that we can live in and thrive. We want future generations to be able to look back, not in anger, but in thanks at the society we have built for them.

The changes to the law that the UK government plan to implement will undermine democracy and your human right to respect for your home.

Firstly, ministers are currently negotiating a massive trade deal, in secret, at speed, and without any public consultation. Our elected representatives in Holyrood and Westminster are not party to the details or implications of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They will get no vote on this. Leaked documents in Europe have led us to understand that this deal will allow multinational companies to take governments to court for having any laws that mean they could make less profit than they’d ideally like. This will make a farce of our democracy, and making the public pay compensation for ‘loss of profits’.

If an American company decides it’s inconvenient that we have laws that protect workers and public health, preventing companies from carrying out noxious activities, they would be able to sue us and create a race to the bottom to lower our protective laws to that of the US.

This has implications for the second issue. Multinational companies have been lobbying our governments in Holyrood and Westminster for many years, to have them change the law so that these companies can have the right to drill under our communities and leave ‘any substance’ under the ground, where it has the potential to leak into the ground water supply.

In September of last year, I discovered that despite massive public opposition, new legislation was being introduced through the unelected House of Lords to allow fracking companies to apply for planning consent without notifying landowners, Without the required minimum period of 8 weeks’ public consultation, the bill which began and ended in the Lords was unopposed by MPs upon their return from the 2013 Xmas holidays; they confirmed they would not oppose changes to the law that would allow oil and gas extraction companies to drill within a designated area without landowners’ permission.

Despite promises to the contrary from the industry, the legislation was then changed again to allow fracking to take place under homes without their owners’ knowledge’, then, in late September last year, it was announced the UK government would at that time be unopposed by Labour in implementing further changes to prevent landowners from withholding permission to fracture the ground below their feet.

This is deeply undemocratic and takes away people’s right to decide what happens to their land, their homes and their communities.

I wonder how many of these Lords or ministers with money vested in the UK fracking sector know how it feels to really ‘invest’ in a community.  In every part of Scotland, where once there was devastation left by the mining industry (and then more devastation left by its demise), people have come together to rebuild.  It has taken time for the air to clear, for the water to become clean enough to bathe your children in again, for the soil to become fertile enough to grow organic food. The people here have created something much better than was here before, they’re in the process of creating a healthy environment, where the word ‘community’ means something again, where people are working together to grow food and plan for community renewable energy generation, sharing resources and creating mutual support networks, building community boats and reclaiming our waters with wild swimming.

The word ‘investment’ used to mean something different.  It used to mean putting some effort, care and resource into something to make it better in the long run.  Now the word has come to be associated with a different set of behaviours, annexing and extracting the wealth out of something before leaving it decimated, such as happened in the Phones 4 U scandal.

Who, I ask, is better placed to make a judgement about what our historic seaside towns need? A few rich men in Westminster who stand to get richer still? Or the people who live here and love this place?

For all the rhetoric around energy security, we need to make decisions that put the emphasis on ‘security’ and the long term. We are the ones who care most about our children’s future and given proper evidence we can decide whether we would be better off with community owned wind-turbines at Seafield, or underground coal gasification at Forth Ports in Grangemouth, Kincardine, Leven, Kirkcaldy, Methil, Leith and Cockenzie. We want access to facts, such as the knowledge that Scotland will have generated 50% of its electricity needs through renewables this year, that despite underinvestment, jobs in renewables in Scotland are currently over 11,000.  Facts such as according to the British Geological Survey, all the shale gas and coal gas resource in the UK would only power the country for two years at best. Or evidence such as the economic cost of oil and gas versus renewables, such as the fact that the public purse gave out £2.6bn in subsidies (the size of the austerity cuts) to the oil and gas sector plus 30% tax breaks. In an industry that generated £10.6bn of tax revenues in 2011 from Scottish waters alone, that represents around £3-4bn.

Adding those figures up, every year the public purse gives the oil and gas sector between £5-6bn, compared to only £300m for the renewables sector (and a bill is to be presented in the UK parliament to abolish onshore wind subsidies altogether).  We have a responsibility to weigh all of this up against the environmental security of climate change. We should take that responsibility very seriously and facts such as in 2013 renewable electricity generation displaced approximately 11,900,000 tonnes of CO2, equal to around 22.5 per cent of Scotland’s carbon emissions in 2012, are significant factors.

We should be able to judge whether we are truly getting ‘energy security’ and ‘economic security’, and if either of those things are more important than public health and species security.  If unconventional gas extraction processes are safe, let us be the judge of that; give us the long range public health studies. If it’s going to benefit our seaside towns to have trucks barreling through loaded with water and effluent to sevice 100 or so wells (such as was planned for Airth Stirlingshire), for the sake of a handful of short term jobs, let us be the judge of that.

Environmental groups claim there is a failure rate of 40-60% on these wells, and the lowest figure I ever heard was from a geological engineer in the industry in Australia who told me it was only a 2% failure rate. At 100 wells, that’s two wells leaking fracking fluid and contaminated return water into our aquifers. He told me there was nothing in the public domain that could prove his claims that it was safe. We are intelligent people, we can make decisions for ourselves. Show us the evidence, the 20-year studies that have been conducted in cities like ours with geography like ours, please give us scientific proof that our tenements built on top of coal mines will stay standing and our water unpolluted. But as yet, no such proof exists, and this is why it has been banned in New York, France and Canada.

Recently there has ben much politicking by all the political parties except the Tories who maintain a stance that they are ‘all out for unconventional gas’ and the Greens who want a ban on it.

The Scottish Government, who have power to grant planning, announced a ‘moratorium’ on onshore unconventional gas extraction – not a ban, but a pause in the planning process whilst they gather more evidence, environmental impact studies and a public consultation. It is welcome news that they, at least, are listening to the Scottish people, but I am wary that this may just prove a PR exercise until after the election.

Besides, by far and away the bigger threat we face on the Firth of Forth is Underground Coal Gasification whereby many companies plan to collect gas by setting fire to the coal underneath the Forth estuary. This, according to Fergus Ewing, is not covered by Scotland’s regulations, despite him saying very clearly in 2013 in parliamentary questions that UCG would be regulated by SEPA and Local Authority Planning consents, and therefore DOES come under Scottish Government power.  I wrote to him last week to ask for clarification on the matter and why the Scottish Government would not commit to the principle of protecting public safety by including UCG in this pause in planning consents and gathering of environmental impact assessments… I have yet to receive a reply, but will update this when I do.

The truth of the matter is that despite claims by the Labour party to have achieved ‘stronger regulations’ in the vote that took place on 28 January this year, their proposals would still have left the UK with a weaker regulatory framework than elsewhere in the world.  But it was lucky for the Conservatives that even Labour’s own peers decided to vote against their own MPs’ amendment, and instead accepted a watered down amendment from the Tories and Lib Dems, which now allows this activity to take place in national parks, areas of natural beauty and next to drinking water aquifers. Pretty scary stuff, and even the unconventional gas industry journal, Marine and Petroleum Geology confirms fissures can reach up to 600m in length. 

In Australia, they have 2km buffer zones between communities. There is no buffer zone in the UK. According to the independent geologist and seismologist I interviewed, it’s industry standard everywhere else that seismic activity is limited to 2.5mag, however in the UK plans are for it to be up to 3.5 following claims (by an ‘independent academic’ who happens also to be an industry director and investor) that previous limits were too strict.

What has not been proven to be safe elsewhere in the world is being forced upon us, against democratic process, against the will of communities in conditions where we are not surrounded by space like the USA or Australia, in which a dense population lives in buildings that are on average 100 years older than theirs, in tall tenements, in historically mined and fractured ground. Fractures allow leaks, of waste fluid, of gases, of air. If the coal is set alight under the Forth, these fractures will become vents and prevent the fire being snuffed out.

It is worth mentioning at this point that several home insurance companies have now changed their exclusions so that if your home suffers damage and you live in an area where unconventional petroleum extraction has taken place, they will not cover your claim.

As a community we should have the information and the ability to make an informed choice whether to allow this to happen.

There are other options, better ways to achieve energy security, warm homes and a clean environment.  I wrote extensively about the potential for geothermal energy in Scotland here. We already have the potential to achieve 100% of the country’s electricity needs from geothermal energy alone. That’s energy that doesn’t run out, that will be still be heating the homes and powering the communities of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. If we have the capacity and the potential to do this NOW, why on earth is our government not pursuing this option? Why instead are they steamrollering deeply unpopular legislation which is against the interests of public health and our climate change responsibilities? If we want there to be any life at all for our grandchildren, we have to take our responsibility for global warming very, very seriously indeed. Did you know that as of next summer there will be no Arctic ice?  Did you know that this unconventional gas, which our government is promoting, releases vast amounts of methane, which along with the methane released from the ice sheets is projected to cause apocalyptic climate change and the start of widespread extinction of the human race within decades?

Private corporations don’t have an interest in protecting public health or preventing climate change when, as in this case, to do so would threaten their profits. In Scotland, SEPA will not be collecting environmental samples, the companies themselves are only required to self-monitor and will continue their plans without independent scrutiny, or the democratic assent of the communities they will be affecting.  In another piece of bad news for public health, the House of Lords UK infrastructure bill also removed the provision that would have made environmental impact assessments mandatory, while an EU court rules mandatory environmental impact assessments are not necessary for shale gas exploration – which means that there is now no way for communities to oppose these applications on environmental grounds, unless they have tens of thousands of pounds to fund their own Environmental Impact Assessment. Even if communities do this, it will likely be dismissed by the planning system because “the law” considers detailed assessment to be the responsibility and expertise of the regulators after the application is granted, even when the regulators do nothing, a legal precedent set by the failure of the Balcombe High Court appeal.

This is all very serious stuff, and it’s a responsibility that our governments are shirking so it is one that we as individuals will all need to bear together.  We need to step up to the plate, as responsible custodians of the land in our communities, and citizens of a world which is teetering on the point of no return.

At a community meeting in November 2014, the people of my beautiful town decided that as a community they were not being given access to the democratic system, independent evidence-based information, and rights to make decisions about what happens to our homes, our children’s futures, the world we want to build.

At that meeting everybody talked in small groups about what they wanted to do and there was a collective agreement that we wanted to write a charter, a mandate for the community we wanted to live in. We have now begun that process, to set down the future life and rights of our citizens, which we hope will form a community mandate about the kind of industries, developments and planning we want in communities on the Forth Estuary.

We don’t want unconventional gas extraction to go ahead at all, we want to be safe and we want decisions that will affect our communities to be democratic. Our faith in our elected representatives has been betrayed by their willingness to act as if they were tightening regulations to gain plaudits, and then dismantle it all in the House of Lords when no one was looking. What kind of opposition is Labour, to play to the press and make people believe they had guaranteed safeguards and then vote their own amendment down?  We deserve a proper democracy, not this sham. We don’t want experimental gas extraction in our communities because it cannot be done safely and it cannot be regulated safely.

If either the Scottish Government or Westminster Government were committed to public wellbeing, they would ensure at the very least:

1) a moratorium on ALL unconventional gas processes including Underground Coal Gasification until these could be proven to be safe over a 20 year period

2) full Environmental Impact Investigations as mandatory requirement, carried out at the licence holder’s cost

3) independent monitoring in place, at cost to the licence holder.  Companies CANNOT be allowed to self monitor. We wouldn’t allow that for a nuclear power station, so why would we allow that for this?

4) community referendum on whether or not to grant planning to unconventional gas developments.

5) proper community restoration bonds (in independent funds, learning lessons from the scandal of underestimated bonds for opencast mining, making sure the figure is substantial enough to repair the damage)

6) 2km buffer zones between settlements and any drilling, as implemented in New South Wales, Australia

But I don’t see any of these rational, evidential safeguards in any of the legislation.  Which is all the more surprising given that the UK Government’s own Environmental Audit Committee published the following last year:

‘Any large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK is likely to be at least 10-15 years away. It is also unlikely to be able to compete against the extensive renewable energy sector we should have by 2025-30 unless developed at a significant scale. By that time, it is likely that unabated coal-fired power generation will have been phased out to meet EU emissions directives, so fracking will not substitute for (more carbon-intensive) coal. Continually tightening carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act will have significantly curtailed our scope for fossil fuel energy, and as a consequence only a very small fraction of the possible shale gas deposits will be burnable.

27. A moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking is needed to avoid the UK’s carbon budgets being breached in the 2020s and beyond, and the international credibility of the UK in tackling climate change being critically weakened — already a prospect if the provisions in the Infrastructure Bill aimed at maximising North Sea oil extraction are passed.’

We are the people and we have the responsibility and the right to create a future for our families.  If our governments can no longer be relied upon to protect our wellbeing and represent our wishes, we have no other option but to take this into our own hands. Let’s get informed, let’s get organised.

Let’s decide what WE want for our communities.


Footnote on the current players in the unconventional gas Industry in Scotland:

(Thanks to CCoF for the following information):

Lord Smith of Kelvin (Lord Smith of the Smith Commission, and of the ‘independent’ study into Unconventional Gas, commissioned by the UK government), was recently appointed as head of Forth Ports, which has an interest in unconventional gas exploitation.  (Falkirk Herald As you might expect major players like Lord Smith of Kelvin offer a wealth of industrial experience and numerous strings to their bow, as covered in the Herald Scotland article dated, Sunday 5 May 2013.

Lord Smith of Kelvin is widely regarded as a big hitter with investments in fracking in USA, coming to head up Forth Ports, joining other major players in the energy field such as:

* Jim Ratcliffe (Ineos)
Recently signed a 15 year contract to import Ethane (Shale gas) from the U.S.A, commissioning eight supertankers for transport of Ethane to Grangemouth and Rafness, Norway. In addition Ineos upstream recently obtain two licence areas for drilling Shale gas in the Midland Valley (central Scotland) and have also made bids for further licenses from the UK Government (DECC) to increase this holding. The UK government (DECC) is yet to announce the winners of the latest 14th on-shore licensing round.

* Algy Cuff (Cluff Natural Resources, CNR)
Holders of multiple near shore licences for Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). CNR are looking to obtain planning permission for Underground Coal Gasification under the Firth of Forth Estuary at Kincardine bridge and other near shore areas along the UK coastline, including other parts of Scotland (Fife). UCG is an industrial process which literally sets fire to underground coal formations to make synthetic gas (Syngas). This industrial process additionally requires a purpose built processing plant to derive the synthetic gas.
It is worth noting that UCG has not been tried at any time within the UK.

* Andrew Austin (IGas)
Recently took over Dart Energy who have significant interests around Grangemouth for CBM & Shale gas in Scotland. IGas are currently the largest Unconventional Gas producer in the UK.
Prior to the IGas takeover of Dart Energy, Concerned Communities of Falkirk challenged the Dart Energy planning application at a Public Inquiry in Falkirk – The decision for the Public Inquiry was to be given by the Public Inquiry Reporter’s. However, this planning application was Called-in by the Scottish Government Ministers. The Scottish Government Minister’s decision is still pending.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s