The arrival of a giant tanker in the Firth of Forth in Scotland on Tuesday will signal the opening of a “virtual pipeline” transporting vast amounts of gas from US fracking wells – blamed for causing "human suffering and environmental destruction" – to Europe.
Ineos, the company that runs the giant refinery at Grangemouth, plans to eventually transport more than 800,000 tonnes of ethane, using eight specially built ships, across the Atlantic every year – and claims this new supply could “revolutionise” UK manufacturing.
However, anti-fracking campaigners pointed out that one of the companies supplying the gas, Range Resources, was fined more than $4m (£3.1m) for allowing liquid from its wells to pollute groundwater and soil in Pennsylvania in 2014 – the largest penalty ever imposed for an environmental offence by the state. One of the central criticisms of fracking is that it can lead to pollution of the land and air, with claims this can affect people's health.
The ship arrives only a day after the shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Barry Gardiner, announced a future Labour Government would ban fracking in the UK, saying it would back "the clean technologies of the future" instead.
The shipment is believed to be the first fracked gas available for use in the UK, where fracking has only been carried out on an experimental basis with the results likely to have been burned off, rather than sold.
Ineos was welcoming the tanker, the Ineos Insight, which bears the slogan “shale gas for manufacturing” in block capital letters along its side, to the Firth on Tuesday with a bagpiper and a celebratory reception for dignitaries including Scottish Secretary David Mundell.
However not a single Scottish Government minister will attend due to "previous diary commitments". Scotland has imposed a moratorium on fracking and is due to make a decision on an outright ban next year based on expert reports.
What Ineos has named its “virtual pipeline” will ultimately involve eight ships making repeated journeys across the Atlantic with a delivery of liquefied ethane about once every five days.
Europe’s largest ethane gas storage tank has been built at Grangemouth to cope with the influx.
The refinery’s existence had been threatened as the supply of North Sea ethane – used to make plastics, not as a fossil fuel – dwindled.
Tom Pickering, Ineos’s operations director, told The Independent: “If we had shut Grangemouth, that would have meant all of those products would have had to be imported. It [the supply from the US] will mean Grangemouth once again has got a heartbeat and will thrive in the future.”
Asked about criticism from environmentalists, Mr Pickering said many of the plastics they produce were used by the renewable energy industry.
Ineos also has plans to frack for shale gas in the UK as part of its ambition to become the country’s “biggest indigenous shale gas player and to lead a UK and European shale gas revolution”.
Range Resources was only one of its suppliers and had “been improving their standards over the last few years”, Ineos said, adding that regulatory standards governing gas pipes and fracking in the UK were higher than in the US.
However, fracking has been dogged by persistent complaints from local people in areas where it is carried out and protests at proposed sites.
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, condemned the arrival of the ship and its controversial cargo. "It is completely unacceptable to attempt to prop up Ineos's petrochemicals plants on the back of human suffering and environmental destruction across the Atlantic," she said.
The campaign group also issued a comment by Ron Gulla, a former resident of Hickory, Pennsylvania, who signed a lease for fracking on his land in 2002.
“I have witnessed first hand how the fracking industry has brought permanent damage across the Pennsylvania region, polluted our air, land and water and is destroying our livelihoods,” he said.
“Those living near drilling, infrastructure or waste sites have suffered water contamination, spills, wastewater dumping and gas leaks, as well as multiple health impacts.
“My property and life have been destroyed by this industry. I don’t know how the harm the fracking industry has caused can ever be corrected or how these injured places will get back their clean water. We must never lose sight of the fact that water is more important than gas.”
Even supporters of fracking in the UK attacked the move to ship fracked gas from the US to Europe. Criticising Labour's plan to ban fracking in this country, Gary Smith, secretary of the GMB Scotland union, said: "Carting gas across oceans is not good from the environment and not good for security of supply in the UK."
Mr Gardiner said the former Chancellor George Osborne had passed "the most generous tax regime for shale gas anywhere in the world".
"There are technical problems with fracking, and they give rise to real environmental dangers. But technical problems can be overcome," he said.
"The real reason to ban fracking is that it locks us into an energy infrastructure that is based on fossil fuels long after our country needs to have moved to clean energy. So today I am announcing that a future Labour Government will ban fracking."
Range Resources was the first company to drill fracking wells in Pennsylvania when the technique took off there in the mid-2000s. It was fined $4.15m in 2014 after liquid from fracking wells polluted the surrounding countryside in Washington County. Officials said the liquid got into groundwater but not drinking water supplies.
The company also agreed to pay one family $750,000 after they complained of illness and blamed a well near their home, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
In April, Terry Bossert, Range’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, told a Pennsylvania Bar Institute meeting that the company avoided putting fracking wells near “big houses” in case the residents used their money to oppose it. A Range spokesman later said the remark had been “sarcastic” and “facetious”.
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