After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

Ric Lander, 11th June 2013. Originally published in Perspectives Magazine and on Bright Green.

The central belt’s fossil-fuel industrialists: James ‘Paraffin’ Young; John (Lord) Browne, BP; Mark Lappin, Dart Energy.

When new technology offers us great promise – and the new gas boom certainly does, offering up cheap, clean energy and jobs galore – it’s worth taking time to consider what lessons can we learn from history.

Discussing the announcement of a gas industry-financed report proclaiming ‘drill baby drill’ for the UK, Newsnight reporter Andrew Black says Scotland’s shale oil was “a once proud industry that years ago was the envy of the world” (1). We are often proud of getting through traumatic events. Few industries have given a place as much trauma as the fossil-fuel extraction industry. What is remarkable is that the quite small patch of central Scotland where new gas drilling is being proposed is the very place that has perhaps the longest history of this trauma.

From shale oil to coal to the North Sea, the central belt of Scotland has seen it all before. Boom and bust, pollution and catastrophe, and then the inevitable mess for communities to clean-up. Proposals by Dart Energy to drill for coal-bed methane on the River Forth could be just another chapter in this story, but encouragingly, local people might be poised to make history.

Bings and the first booms

It’s been almost a century since Scotland’s shale ‘bings’ (similar to spoil heaps) have been out of use, and much seems to have been forgotten of the true nature of the industry that created them.

Central Scotland’s history of oil and gas began with shale oil, which for a brief period made Scotland one of the world’s largest oil exporters. Beginning in the 1850s, it was a boom industry in the time between the abundance of whale oil and Texan black gold. Entrepreneur James ‘Paraffin’ Young invented a process to produce easily transportable and relatively safe lamp fuel which made him very rich, and in terms of sheer scale left the most astonishing footprint on the Scottish lowlands.

Shale oil bings at Broxburn, East Lothian. Image: Flickr user bethmoon527 (Creative Commons)

This land is, of course, totally lost to agriculture, but the human cost of the boom was greater. Places such as Burngrange, W. Lothian suffered greatly in incidents like that in January 1947 where rapidly spreading fires took the lives of 15 shale miners. Epidemiological studies from this time reveal considerable damage to health including skin and respiratory conditions (2). Unlike the James Youngs of this world, shale miners did not die old.
Yet shale oil’s impact on the central belt was dwarfed by later developments. The deepest scars in the area were left by the coal industry. At its height it employed over 140,000 people in Scotland. Mining families made up 10% of the population (3).

In the 10 years from 1877 to 1887 Scotland lost 343 people in three disasters with workers killed in mines kept in appalling conditions. The outrage and courage of those they left behind was a major driver to the budding Labour movement (4). Like shale mining, numerous effects shortened life-spans. Although great strides were made by the unions these mines were never safe, with subsequent disasters taking lives right up to the 1960s.

Official list of deaths at the Burngrange shale mine disaster, 1947. Image from: ‘Report on the Causes of the Explosion and fire at the Burngrange Mine, Midlothian’, Ministry of Fuel and Power

Central Scotland’s deep mines have now gone, but their impact still remains. They left their slag heaps and their bings, and occasionally the mines remind of their presence when a house sinks into an old coal seam, as happened in Edinburgh in 2001 (5).

Remaining open-cast mines have now gone under, and the liquidation of Scottish Coal is providing nowhere near enough assets to pay for the sites’ restoration (6). What a mess.

Communities built for the pits defined themselves by coal and shale. Now all that is left is legacy of poor health and environmental destruction.

Central Scotland and the North Sea

In October 1970 Scotland’s energy industry was transformed anew with the discovery of the giant Forties oilfield in the North Sea. A new boom was on the horizon. Many urban centres on the east coast competed for a piece of the pie. To a considerable extent, the winner was Aberdeen, but facilities were built in many places elsewhere and the largest installation of all came to the central belt: the Grangemouth refinery.

Grangemouth refinery in the 1950s and today. Photos: RCHAMS (Crown Copyright) / Flickr user Gee01 (Creative Commons)

Just like the coal and shale industries before it, the oil boom brought jobs and cash to central Scotland and Grangemouth rapidly grew with its refinery owned by BP.

Carbon Trade Watch’s film ‘The Carbon connection’ revealed local people’s experiences of the refinery (7): people who can’t sleep at night, strange sickly smells on a daily basis, breathing troubles, and a constant threat of accidents justified a poor safety record. Most recently SEPA fined Grangemouth refinery £100,000 in 2011 after a pipeline leak and fire (8). The last deaths were in 1987 when three were killed by a fire which took hold of leaking gas (9).

Accidents seem to come in spates, and the following year Scotland was the scene of what remains the world’s worst off-shore disaster. 167 died when the giant Piper Alpha platform catastrophically exploded. 49 of the dead were from the towns of the central belt (10). Many of their homes were ex-coal mining towns.

Survivor Jim McDonald from Stirling was the last of his crew to give evidence on the disaster. He told the Cullen enquiry he only knew how to escape the doomed living quarters because he worked on rig’s construction (11).
Studies have revealed the deep pain of Piper Alpha’s legacy: survivors living with post traumatic stress syndrome, families ripped apart, whole communities broken.

Today North Sea oil is in decline. Tax breaks are awarded by the UK Government to encourage drilling of the last untapped acres of the North Sea, but it will do little good. Peak oil was struck in our part of the world in 1999. Lord Browne oversaw BP’s sale of Grangemouth and the refinery is now struggling to make a profit (12). Before long the global oil companies will pack up operations to more lucrative prospects. More towns and villages, and in Aberdeen’s case possibly cities, must lose their heart. The trauma continues.

New gas boom in the Lowlands?

In 2012, Australian gas company ‘Dart Energy’ applied for a licence to start a whole new form of mining in central Scotland. Having drilled 20 test wells already, they propose drilling a 14 commercial wells to tap methane trapped in old coal seams, known as coal-bed methane.

Coal-bed methane poses an number of environmental and health risks including well-founded records of hazardous air, groundwater and surface water pollution (13) (Dart have ruled out the need to use the controversial ‘fracking’ process, but they do use this process at other sites). The industry have admitted that well leakages may be inevitable.

The UK and Scottish Governments say new gas is safe when it is properly regulated, yet elsewhere where regulation has been tightened drilling has stopped (14). It is difficult to escape the conclusion that new gas may simply be “unregulatable”, as UN Advisor Mariann Lloyd-Smith claims (15).

The life-span of a coal-bed methane well is 5 to 15 years, with output typically declining by “between 50% and 75% in the first year of production” (13). Most recoverable gas is usually extracted after just a few years. Given this sheer drop-off in production it is difficult to make a site viable without drilling wells in phases. These 34 wells at Airth won’t be enough: Dart will need to, and may have plans already, to drill further towards Stirling. There could be much more to come.

And the safety fears still abound. Just last year an explosion at a new on-shore gas rig killed 1 and injured 3 in Colorado (16).

The drilling site at Airth is just 5 miles outside of Grangemouth and Dart energy has a habit of reminding planners of its proximity, as if comparison to the refinery should be reassuring.

New gas comes at the right time and place for an industry desperate to find the next big boom, and they have a well funded PR machine making sure we know all about the benefits.

So what about these benefits? As we have seen, coal-bed methane can hardly be described as clean, and its global warming damage is considerable. Low gas prices have abounded on the US market, but crucially these low prices have not reached consumers. Dart’s own website says they have created at most just 37 new jobs (17).

Just as before, what few benefits there are accrue to a very small number of people. And more so than before these benefits will fall away quickly; a get rich quick scheme where once again all the costs are born by local people. In a very short space of time they will drill, spill, take, and leave. The rest of us are left with empty communities and polluted landscapes.

What well informed community could possibly let this happen to itself?

The beginning of a movement

Something may be happening that did not happen when the shale pits were sunk, coal was first mined, and oil was struck: people may be about to stop it.

For whilst the wisdom of their time defined that oil and coal were good for Scotland, there is not much wisdom rooting for new on-shore gas. There are people saying it, certainly, but these are industry people, the few who stand to gain.

This is partly because of the litany of environmental costs identified, the unknown risks, and to some extent the health impacts too. But what tips the balance is the overriding feeling that the benefits of this endeavour are simply not enough to make it worth it. It is too great a sacrifice and a risk to set up this industry only to see it wither in 10 years.

In Scotland, genuine alternatives are making great strides and there is real concern that a new dash for fossil-fuels could sap the energy out of the renewables industry which, evidence suggests, is well placed to sustainably power the country (18). Perhaps we’ve had enough of the boom and bust?

Communities at Airth and Grangemouth are responding. Hard working local campaigners have been out on the streets explaining, informing and encouraging people to take action, and it’s working: over 2000 residents have signed an objection to the proposals at Airth. Partly as a result, Falkirk and Stirling Council extended the outcome of the planning proposal, now referred to the Scottish Government, and in May the news came that Dart had halted its exploratory drilling programme.

‘Lock the Gate’ demonstration at Seacliff, Australia, October 2011. Coal-seam gas is the Australian term for coal-bed methane. Image: Flickr user Nocsgillawarra

A loose coalition is forming between environmentalists, including in the Falkirk and Stirling Friends of the Earth groups, and local residents associations. The campaign in central Scotland is starting to look like the incredibly successful ‘Lock the Gate’ campaign in Australia: an alliance of community activists, environmentalists, and conservative conservationists that has defied stereotyping. What is all the more remarkable about what’s happening near Grangemouth is that these aren’t conservative people who are simply unfamiliar with this heavy industry: they’re just sick of it.

The Scottish Government is starting to respond too. Whilst a year ago the overriding message was “it’s not our fault: talk to Westminster” (19), change has come in the announcement of the draft National Planning Framework which proposes ‘buffer zones’ around drilling sites. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland if buffer zones were imposed similar to those in place in New South Wales (14) more than half of Dart’s wells would be inoperable.

There is so much to be gained by this campaign. Learning our lesson from history we can turn from boom and bust fossil-fuels towards sustainable industries. We can turn our back on the solutions of rich industrialists and build an economy made for people.


(1) Newsnight Scotland, 22 May 2013. Full video:
(2) ‘Morbidity and Mortality Study of Shale Oil Workers’, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 30, Jun., 1979, Joseph Costello / Liddell, F. D. K. (1973) ‘Morbidity of British Coal Miners 2961-62’ British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1973), pp. 1-14
(3) Coal Collections, 2013. Site:
(4) Udstone Mining Disaster and Keir Hardie, 1887. Site:
(5) ‘Mines blamed for housing collapses’, 30 July, 2001, BBC News. Site:
(6) ‘Scottish Coal liquidation leads to dispute over clean-ups’, 12 May 2013, The Herald. Site:
(7) ‘The Carbon Connection’ film, 2010, Carbon Trade Watch. Site:
(8) ‘Grangemouth refinery operators fined £100,000 after crude oil pipeline leak’, 5 July 2011, STV. Site:
(9) ‘Paying the price of safety failures’, 27 July 1999, BBC News. Site:
(10) ‘Oil Platform Disaster: Disaster dead are named’, 9 July 1988, The Guardian (London).
(11) ‘Piper Survivor ‘Crawled over bodies to get out of smoke”, The Glasgow Herald, 25 April 1989. Site:,2613467
(12) ‘Alarm over Grangemouth refinery losses’, 24 June 2012, Sunday Herald. Site:
(13) Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources, April 2013, National Toxics Network. Site:
(14) ‘Coal seam gas buffer zones alarm the miners’, 20 February 2013. Site:
(15) ‘Coalbed methane and fracking ‘unregulatable’ says toxins expert’, 20 May 2013, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site:
(16) ‘1 dead, 3 hurt in natural gas well explosion near Fort Lupton’, 16 August 2012, Denver Post. Site:
(17) Dart Energy, 2013. Site:
(18) ‘The Power of Scotland Secured’, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site:
(19) ‘Ministerial Optimism sees Fracking Stumble Ahead onto Uncharted Paths’, 23 January 2012, Ric Lander


RBS AGM: the Report Shareholders Won’t See

  • Loans to renewables dwarfed by oil and gas in Q4 2011 and Q1 2012
  • Taxpayer-funded RBS loans undermine Government climate policy
  • No sign of change since Government bail-out

As private shareholders gather for the RBS Annual General Meeting in Gogarburn today, there will be an elephant in the room.

Majority shareholder, the UK Government, whose portion is managed by treasury-owned “UK Financial Investments” will not be using their power to stop RBS undermining Government policy to reduce carbon emissions.

Research I helped produce with Friends of the Earth Scotland published in the Guardian on Monday shows that RBS were involved in lending 67.3bn bn of loans to energy and power companies between October 2011 and March 2012, more than half of which was lent to oil and gas corporations. Only 5% went to funding renewable energy projects.

This comes only a week after the UK Government announced ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions from UK electricity generation, including a reduced reliance on coal.

The research unermines the Coalition’s claim that returning RBS to profitability should be the only aim for UKFI. RBS’ loan activities directly oppose Government efforts create a sustainable economy, and will increase the cost of the impacts of climate change on the UK in the future.

As well as increasing carbon emissions, companies which RBS has recently been involved in funding have had been under fire for corruption and human rights abuses. The RBS AGM will take place away from prying eyes this afternoon at their out-of-town conference centre, RBS Gogarburn near Edinburgh.

RBS customers under the spotlight:

  • Adani Power Ltd, India. £415 mil. deal closed 30-12-2012. RBS was involved in arranging loans for a coal fired power station project in Kutchh District, Gujarat. The two plants together have an operating capacity larger than Cockenzie power station. Despite the carbon intensity of the project, it has receieved controversial ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ credits where the operator can be paid for efficiency improvements relative to if no such additions were not installed. A riot of 1500 people recently broke out after a labourer was killed and two others critically injured working on the plants’ contruction.
  • Enel Finance International SA Luxembourg £2.7 bn deal closed 20-02-2012. Enel is the 23th largest coal-fired electricity producer worldwide by operating capacity…
  • …and Duke Energy is the 17th largest. Duke Energy Corp, USA. £3.8 bn deal closed 18-11-2011.
  • Tullow Oil Plc., UK. £415 mil closed 30-11-2011. Whilst RBS and its partners were closing a deal with Tullow Oil, the company was appearing before the Ugandan Parliament over corruption charges.
  • ConocoPhillips Co, USA. £7.5 bn closed 22-02-2012. ConocoPhillips, the company’s Chinese division was being sued by fishermen and farmers following after a disasterous oil spill in Bohai Bay, Northern China. The spill spread over 6,200 square km of water and caused huge losses to tourism and aquatic farming. The Chinese Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs has accused ConocoPhillips of covering up the damage during critical pereods after the spill in 2011. ConocoPhillips is also one of the largest investors in the Alberta Tar Sands, causing widespread destruction to the region’s pristine forests and damaging resources owned by First Nations peoples.

(All new data from Friends of the Earth Scotland /, see FOES online)

This post was originally published on Bright Green Scotland.


Can Film Inspire Personal Change?

Can Film Inspire Personal Change? Insights from research with Take One Action Film Festivals

Take One Action has been finding out about what kinds of films inspire people to take action in their lives.

Workshops held after three climate change screenings asked audience members how films made them feel and how connected they felt to the stories and issues shown.

Responses included the following insights:

  • Audiences are more likely to connect with personal stories and characters than factual information.
  • Confrontation can make a film exciting, but also distance the audience from the subject.
  • People liked to see people like themselves on screen.
  • Films that show constructive solutions inspire action.
  • Films that show problems or contextual information may inspire further learning.

Lessons from the workshops will help inform Take One Action’s work and should be of interest to film-makers and those using film to inspire change.

The results of the research were launched at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh on 30 March preceding Take One Action’s cycle-powered screening of ‘YERT’.  They were published in Take One Action’s Green Shoots report and you can read a summary of the findings here:

You can also read full transcripts from the workshops: There Once Was an Island, Just Do It and the Lightbulb Conspiracy.

Adapted from a story published on the Take One Action news feed.

News and updates

Reducing the climate impact of the Edinburgh University community

The University of Edinburgh’s radical carbon reduction project ‘Transition Edinburgh University’ published a broad ranging report considering potential carbon reduction measures and giving the first comprehensive view of a university population’s carbon footprint.

Findings of the study, edited by Ric Lander and Oliver Cooper, were published in the Guardian on 8 December 2009 (‘How One University is Facing the 10:10 Challenge‘). A summary follows.

Footprints and Handprints: the Edinburgh University community’s climate impact and how we can begin reducing it – Executive Summary

Footprints and Handprints brings together the collective experience of Transition Edinburgh University (TEU) over its first year. Prepared by group members and staff-interns Oliver Cooper and Ric Lander, it is the first significant research output of the group and covers key concepts, the internal working arrangement of the group, an estimation of the carbon footprint of the Edinburgh University community and proposals for future action.

Climate change, according to the scientific community, is caused largely by human activity and poses a dire threat to the ability of our planet to sustain us. Peak oil is the peaking of oil production and the beginning of the end of a cheap, abundant oil supply. This twin threat requires ambitious solutions if it is to be overcome. With government action slow and insufficient, Edinburgh University needs to respond as a community in order to overcome these challenges. Thee Transition model – a framework for community action originating from Kinsale in Ireland – suggests an invigorating and exciting way in which we can create a positive and prosperous future. TEU formed in October 2009 to find a way to adapt the this model to fit a University community. It was instrumental in encouraging the adoption of Transition by People & Planet UK network in March 2009 and received funding from the Climate Challenge Fund to develop the concept further at Edinburgh, over Summer 2009. TEU is now a thriving community group embedded in the University and draws great strength from being a core part of the University, the Transition movement, and the student environmental movement.

TEU has been working with four aims:

  1. to investigate energy use and carbon emissions in our community and record achievements in reducing them;
  2. to increase awareness and involvement of the 35,000-strong community in action on climate change and peak oil;
  3. to take practical action to reduce energy use, cut carbon emissions, and relocalise our community; and
  4. to build, publicise and transfer a set of tools to support Transition groups in similar and surrounding communities.

The group believes that University staff and students must work together as a community to achieve these aims and that TEU’s task is to facilitate this effort; that working collectively and non-hierarchically is the most effective way to achieve these changes; and that clear analysis, a practical approach, and a desire to educate, understand and be part of a global solution are all key themes that the group should work towards.

Over our year together as a group, TEU has developed an open model of working which we believe achieves our aims efficiently, empowers group members and facilitates skills development. TEU staff and community members (students and staff at the University) work together in themed working groups on areas such as travel, aiming to reduce the energy-use of travel, and residences, aiming to reduce the energy used in buildings. TEU staff and community members work together in open working spaces where possible, and come together for fortnightly plenary meetings to celebrate successes and coordinate action. The group is supported with training, materials, working spaces, and formal and informal mentoring. Much of this work has been backed up by funding from our initial Climate Challenge Fund grant. A second more ambitious bid has been submitted to the fund and we are awaiting a response. We have also relied on support from the University of Edinburgh Energy & Sustainability Office and Edinburgh University People & Planet Society.

A carbon calculation study for the University community was carried out over the Summer of 2009, aiming to make existing data more relevant and accessible, to highlight areas where data is currently missing and to give staff and students a general picture of where their greenhouse gas emissions occur. It addresses the institutional footprint of the University of Edinburgh and the “lifestyle” footprint (emissions made at home at leisure) of its 10,000 staff and 26,000 students. It is intended to be as broad and inclusive as possible, measuring our impact from direct emissions as well as giving a picture of indirect emissions – those emitted elsewhere in order to provide us with goods and services, which is often overlooked by conventional studies. Preliminary findings suggest that the annual greenhouse gas footprint of the University community is approximately 350,000 tonnes of CO2 e emissions per year. Of this figure, only 50,000 tonnes (14%) is estimated to be directly resulting from institutional activities, with the remaining 86% attributable to staff and student lifestyles. Not including their ‘institutional activities’, the average community member is estimated to produce 8.3 tonnes of CO2e emissions per year. This would comprise 2.3 tonnes CO2 e from domestic energy use, 2.2 tonnes from travel and 3.8 tonnes from goods and services – although the total is thought to be an underestimate, particularly with respect to emissions from travel activities. The study found that the University Estates and Buildings and University Accommodation Services hold useful data regarding energy use in their buildings, but found that the University lacked records for CO2 e attributable to procured goods and services.

Opportunities for action for TEU, the University, and other groups abound, including practical projects to reduce energy-use and carbon emissions, projects to broaden engagement in the transition, projects to spread the idea of Transition further afield, and proposals for further research work. Proposed projects respond to the problems highlighted by the carbon calculation study and build on schemes already running or in development include: a Green Dragons Den where inventors and entrepreneurs develop carbon-saving business ideas with the winner’s being implemented; an Inter-halls Energy Saving Competition, where halls of residence compete to lower energy-use; Veggie-food days, where the carbon-saving qualities of lower-meat diets are promoted; Free-shop and share, where students and staff exchange unwanted items to reduce waste and consumption; the Big Green Makeover, where students and staff are offered supported to make homes more energy efficient; Transition TV, showcasing new and exciting transition ideas; peer-learning programmes such as Carbon Conversations, which are pre-designed courses where participants discuss emotional responses to climate change and peak oil; a green travel fair to promote low-carbon journeys and holidays; a series of high-profile speaker events in the University; and conferences engaging the city community and the wider academic community in Transition.

We also propose that further research is carried out to improve our picture of the community’s carbon footprint and build a complete long-term plan for a green transition. The University has done some work towards recording CO2 e emissions attributable to goods and services procured and this should be commended, but bought services (flights, trains etc.), a significant contributor to the

University’s institutional footprint, are not yet coherently recorded. Much more work is required to give a complete picture of “lifestyle” emissions, as somewhat sweeping assumptions have been required to create estimates of emissions for domestic energy, travel and goods & services. Further research, including surveying the University population, is urgently required to establish a lifestyle greenhouse gas footprint that is more specific to the university community. Parallel to large scale quantitative studies such as these, there is a need for additional studies that provide more context to the picture of the university’s ecological impact. Finally, a clear plan for the future is required, including working towards a holistic “Energy Descent Action Plan”, which gives a vision and a path for a community response to peak oil and climate change. This research can be carried out with the help of TEU staff and community members, and we also see University courses including student dissertations as excellent ways in which students can be engaged in this effort.

A full copy of the report can be obtained from People & Planet (UK) at the following link:

This article is adapted from a post on the Transition Edinburgh University blog.  You can read more about what happened at Transition Edinburgh University in my post here.