Communities fight Falkirk coalbed methane plans

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By Stephanie Pride

Concerned communities in Falkirk are fighting back against plans by unconventional energy giant Dart to turn the district into the UK’s first commercial coalbed methane site.

Although initial plans are for just 22 new wells, the company owns a licence block that covers 367 square kilometres of central Scotland which could yield up to 600 billion cubic feet of the gas, it boasts.

By Stephanie Pride

Concerned communities in Falkirk are fighting back against plans by unconventional energy giant Dart to turn the district into the UK’s first commercial coalbed methane site.

Although initial plans are for just 22 new wells, the company owns a licence block that covers 367 square kilometres of central Scotland which could yield up to 600 billion cubic feet of the gas, it boasts.

Environmental campaigners warn this could lead to the creation of more than 600 new wells on both sides of the Forth – many with a short production life, potentially ending in fracking.

So what, exactly, does the extraction of coalbed methane involve and how does it differ from fracking?

Coalbed methane is a form of gas trapped inside coal seams and is one of a number of sources of ‘unconventional gas’ that the energy industry is turning to as conventional fossil fuels run out. Instead of pumping in large volumes of water to release the gas, coal seams are de-pressurised by pumping out vast amounts of contaminated water and disposing of it.

Locally, the plan is to dump all produced water into the Firth of Forth via an outfall pipe after minimal treatment – around 80,000 gallons of water which can be up to five times as salty as seawater and contain a variety of toxic and radioactive materials.

Dart Energy, whose test wells in Airth have already been in production for some years, are keen to emphasise that this is not fracking.
Yet in many cases in Australia, they have used this technique to enhance production, and the company has a half-share in the licence to extract shale-gas locally.

“Regardless of whether they are fracked, CBM wells are associated with a similar litany of negative impacts to shale gas, including water contamination, air pollution, toxic spills and emissions of gases causing climate change.”

Another campaign group, 38 Degrees, warns that chemicals used in drilling muds can be just as toxic as those used in fracking fluids. “Communities in Australia are already suffering from symptoms associated with exposure to these chemicals, and a growing body of research points to devastating longer term impacts such as birth defects and cancers” they argue.

In fact, the state of New South Wales has banned all CBM activity within 2km of residential areas and rural businesses – a protection not afforded to people within the Forth Valley, some of whom will have boreholes drilled directly under their homes.

Advocates say the pioneering of new energy extraction methods in the UK will at least bring cheaper fuel prices and buy some time for the development of renewable energy.

But the Sunday Herald has cited an independent report which it says shows the calorific value of the local gas, which is crucial in determining its price for consumers, is unlikely to be high enough for the National Grid.

“If these allegations are true, they cast a major cloud over Dart’s much-delayed planning application and the economics of their coal-bed methane scheme,” said Mary Church, campaigns co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth Scotland.

While European industry now pays about three times as much for its gas as its US counterpart, even an enthusiastic editorial in November’s Economist can only see it adding “a few tenths of a percentage point” to the country’s annual growth rate and is reluctant to make any forecasts for the industry beyond a decade.

Asked for a view on fracking and similar practices, the Labour leader of Falkirk Council declined to comment, while SNP group leader Cllr Cecil Meiklejohn said it could be needed for the future when “more environmentally friendly methods of collection may have been developed”.

However, she added: “The carrot of lower fuel prices is just not going to happen and the energy will be exported with no benefit except to the collection company.”

Dart Energy is now appealing for non-determination of the planning application as the council seeks further information about the proposal. A public enquiry is due to take place in March at which local campaign group Falkirk Against Unconventional Gas (FAUG) will be calling upon expert witnesses to oppose the plans.

Jamie Mackenzie Hamilton, of the local group, said: “It’s a real David and Goliath situation.

“We are in a very strong position right now, and if we can put forward the best possible case then there’s a genuine likelihood we can win this… A lot is at stake for us and the whole of the UK.”

So far, just over £35,000 has been raised of the £50,000 needed and FAUG has welcomed the involvement of the national campaign group 38 Degrees, which has donated £20,000 to the cause.

Couretsy of The Scottish Socialist Voice