West Lothian: a crucible where politics and petrochemicals collide. Birthplace of the country’s former first minister, Alex Salmond. Birthplace, too, of the petrochemicals industry, when James 'Paraffin’ Young started an oil shale processing plant in Bathgate in 1851. Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of Ineos, has continued that tradition with the culmination of a multi-billion dollar project to revive petrochemical manufacturing at Grangemouth.
In between these two men called James, who sought and seek to build Scotland into a petrochemical powerhouse, the former local MP, Tam Dalyell, asked what became known as 'the West Lothian Question’ in Westminster: could MPs from Scotland sitting in the UK legislature be able to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament?
It was a vexing question for Dalyell and the British parliament. Almost as vexatious as the situation surrounding Scotland's considerable shale gas reserves (estimated by the British Geological Survey at up to four trillion cubic metres) and the government’s unwillingness to harness them.
The SNP government has imposed a moratorium on shale gas drilling in Scotland. The provisional ban was supposed to have been lifted by now. But last year ministers said it should remain in place until the safety of hydraulic fracturing has been proved beyond doubt through a lengthy consultation period designed for political expediency rather than economic gain.
The situation for shale E&P companies was compounded in June when the Scottish Parliament voted to support an outright ban on fracking. In October, the government then clamped down further on unconventional gas extraction when it imposed a ban on underground coal gasification (UCG).
Lacking sufficient gas supply from maturing North Sea fields and with little prospect of a local shale industry flourishing, Ineos launched a five-year, $2 billion project to facilitate the import of ethane derived from US shale gas into Scotland. The gas will be cracked at Grangemouth as part of the polyethylene manufacturing process. The first 27,500 cubic metre shipment arrived in late September aboard the Ineos Insight, one of eight Dragon Class vessels that have been built specifically to transport the gas to West Lothian and a similar ethane tank at Rafnes in Norway.
The gas, which is produced by a number of companies including Range Resources, is extracted from the Marcellus shale in the US state of Pennsylvania, before being piped 300 miles (483 km) through the Mariner East pipeline to the Marcus Hook deepwater terminal near Philadelphia.
The eight ships will transport ethane from there across the Atlantic under a 15-year charter in what Ineos calls a 'virtual pipeline', providing the raw materials that are essential to kick-start manufacturing at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant. The vessels, which are the first in the world to carry and run on ethane, will supply gas to the plant at a rate of around one delivery per week.
The plant has been loss-making for years. It almost shut down three years ago and its ethane crackers have been running at only half capacity for eight years. But the new 60,000 cubic metre tank and a new import terminal will allow these units to operate at full capacity and the company now looks likely to turn the losses of recent years into profits in the near future.
The revival of the plant has secured 10,000 jobs at the site and in its surrounds and has the potential to spur more inward investment and growth. That was why the UK government provided a £230 million ($300 million) loan guarantee for the ethane tank project, with the Scottish government providing a grant of £9 million ($12 million) towards the Ineos investment.
The SNP’s apparent support of the scheme is at odds with its decision not to send a representative to the docking ceremony of the Ineos Insight at Grangemouth in September, despite the company having sent an invite to every single minister in the government. Ironically the ship itself was also a no-show at the event to mark its arrival at the plant having been forced to postpone docking until the following day because of high winds. Scottish wind thwarting the arrival of the maiden delivery of US shale gas was almost as frustrating for Ineos as the government’s ban on shale E&P.
The company owns considerable acreage in the Midland Valley shales around Grangemouth and across the central belt of Scotland that it wants to test to assess whether a domestic unconventionals industry could emerge. This was due to have begun last year, but the extension of the moratorium and subsequent ban enforced by Holyrood have deferred a decision on the matter until the safety consultation ends. SNP MSPs abstained in the parliamentary vote on whether to ban fracking.
The controversial drilling technique could potentially provide a local supply of raw materials to the ethane cracking plant, revive manufacturing in areas that have endured industrial decline and create new jobs, an especially attractive option as the North Sea enters its sunset years.
Ratcliffe said Ineos had asked the Scottish government if it could conduct exploratory work in tandem with the ongoing consultation on the safety of fracking. He noted that exploration work would take around two to three years to complete (without the need for fracking) and could run concurrently with the executive’s investigation. But the idea has been rebuffed by the government.
With the North Sea’s gas reserves depleting fast, Ineos has been forced to look overseas for raw materials. It is not a problem that is unique to the London-based group either. From 2017, some of the ethane it imports from the US will be piped across the Firth of Forth to the Mossmorran ethane cracker in Fife, which is operated by Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. This is also short of gas supply and could benefit from a productive local shale industry.
At a recent press conference, Ratcliffe asked what the unique selling points of Scottish manufacturing would be in 10 years’ time when oil and gas reserves in the North Sea are depleted. Without cheap energy and raw materials like those available in the US, there will be little incentive for companies to invest in Scotland. This could change if the government were to adopt a scientific-based approach to shale gas, end the moratorium and accept fracking in a highly regulated environment. But political exigency is an impediment.
When asked why Ineos’ message about the economic benefits of shale development was not getting through to ministers in Edinburgh, Ratcliffe replied: 'I don’t know. There is no science behind the vocal minority’s opposition. They seem to be heard louder than the supportive majority.'
He noted that over a million shale wells have been safely drilled in the US, which is the most highly regulated market in the world. Ratcliffe also pointed to the company’s polls that suggest two-thirds of respondents were in favour of fracking when asked and that the man on the street did not seem as opposed to the drilling method as the vocal minority of environmentalists he identified.
The crux of the problem in Scotland is that fracking has become wound up in the domestic political workings as the country gears up for another independence referendum. The UK government is pro-fracking. But the SNP pursues a muddled energy policy that sees it offer vociferous support to the North Sea on the one hand, yet remain impervious to calls to create a new, shale-driven industry in the central belt on the other.
The no-show by ministers at Grangemouth when Ineos shipped in its first American shale gas highlighted an unwillingness to alienate the green vote that could prove crucial in a new independence referendum, the prospect of which has been reignited by Brexit.
It is a difficult dilemma for the nationalists. On the one hand they are fearful of alienating the green wing of their movement, which could prove crucial in getting a vote for independence over the line in a new referendum. On the other, shale gas could provide the economic boom that provided the bedrock for an economically independent Scotland, which, if explained properly, could entice many No voters to change their minds and back separation next time round.
On a misty autumnal morning in September, as the Ineos Insight passed under the Forth bridges at sunrise, a lone piper played on its deck. The piper provided a haunting lament for the SNP's conflicted energy strategy and posed a new West Lothian question: why is shale gas from the US being imported when Grangemouth and its surrounding area sits on trillions of cubic metres of reserves?
While the original West Lothian Question was formative in Scotland's path to devolution, the SNP must now answer this new question if it is to offer a credible road map to the country’s energy and economic independence.
Ryan Stevenson is a thought leader on oil and gas issues in Europe and the Americas. He is managing editor of NewsBase, a leading supplier of business intelligence to the global energy industry. http://newsbase.com/
Photograph courtesy of Ineos
There is a factor in the irresistible rise of Donald J Trump that seems to have escaped attention in all the post mortem analyses of his presidential triumph. It is a factor that has played a role in his success and is itself a symptom of a more serious malaise. I am not a linguist but I am prepared to bet a significant amount that my hypothesis would stand up to scientific testing.
Let us a compare a typical campaign speech of the two candidates. One feature jumps off the page (if you look carefully): Trump’s speech is totally devoid of any subordinate clauses. This is not a pedantic point about syntax, it is a comment on cognitive capacity. It is virtually impossible to develop an argument without using subordinate clauses (unless you are Wittgenstein). You state a proposition and then you justify it (because …, since …, etc.) or contradict it (unless …, conversely …, etc.). A typical Trump speech is a list of single‐predicate statements (often even verbs are dispensed with): the form is completely apodictic, no effort is ever made to justify any proposition. As someone who learned English as a teenager, I remember well both the difficulty of progressing from single‐verb phrases to logically concatenated sentences and the relief of being able to express myself beyond the existential ways of a toddler.
Here is a test: read an excerpt of any Trump’s speech to an eight‐year old: he or she will understand it perfectly, and may even giggle at the appearance of funny new words like bigly. The very same child will get only a small fraction of Clinton’s excerpt (or at least of those 'grown‐up' sections when she does not try to copy Trump’s style).
Political analysts have written profusely on the fact‐free or explicitly deceitful
characteristic of Trump’s speeches, but my point here is not about content, it is about
structure. Trump has capitalised on the cognitive poverty of vast swathes (or swatches in Trumpese) of the American electorate: talk to them as if they were dim eight‐year olds, dispense with any argument, list propositions, emphasise by repetition, engage in extreme summarising ('beautiful wall').
Such infantile addresses would be regarded as both laughable and contemptible
were it not for the fact that they are the natural conclusion of a chain that starts from
the degrading of learning ('school is for geeks', 'the university of life') and the
demonisation of knowledge ('we do not want experts') and leads ultimately to the
cult of inanity.
Manfredi La Manna
While I share Rose Galt’s dismay that America has elected Donald Trump to be its next president, to say that 'it was white men who delivered this result’ does not tell the whole story. As statisticians analysis the numbers, it turns out that a majority of white women also voted for Mr Trump: 53% of them, as opposed to only 4% of black women and 26% of Latino women.
The reasons for Trump’s appeal are many and complex. But the Democrats also have to ask themselves, how did we manage to lose to this man?
It’s an ill wind. My novelty Donald Trump bottle opener, purchased this July in a Californian surf shop (yes, really) has probably increased in value. I can’t identify any other positives. Sleazy remarks about women’s anatomy have been around all my adult life. But being pro-guns and anti-taxes threatens the social contract under which we all live together in peace.