World energy markets are full of strange journeys—crude shipped out of Africa only to be refined elsewhere and sold back as gasoline; gas turned to liquid in the Middle East, transported by ship, and ”regasified” in Japan; power from sunlight criss-crossing borders between Germany and France.
But the shale gas boom in the US over the past half-decade has led to some particular contortions. The availability and cheapness of shale gas and oil in the US led it last year to lift a 40-year-old ban on exporting most crude, and gas exports have been growing for several years.
Other countries, meanwhile, have been variously keen on or wary of the technology, known as fracking, which uses water, sand, and chemicals to force gas out of underground rock formations, and is controversial because of the environmental damage some think it can do. Passions about it run high in the UK; early explorations caused small earthquakes near the town of Blackpool back in 2011. Since then, attempts to explore have been met with fierce protest.
But the UK, divided in so many ways, is also divided on this. The central British government is pro-shale exploration. Scotland, which has its own parliament responsible for certain domestic issues, has banned it.
The UK retains a connected energy system, however. And so the first imports of US shale gas to the country arrive this morning at Grangemouth, a refinery on Scotland’s east coast not far from Edinburgh. The plant, like much of Britain’s energy system, was once supplied by oil and gas from the North Sea. But those fields are running out.
Ineos, which owns the Grangemouth refinery, said it had to shut down parts of the plant because of dwindling supply. Now it’s signed deals with US shale operators which mean it can reopen the whole facility, creating a “pipeline” across the Atlantic via a fleet of eight new ships.
Jim Ratcliffe, the company’s CEO, has vocally lobbied the Scottish government to change its stance on fracking. Scotland placed a moratorium on shale exploration in January 2015. The decision about whether this will turn into an outright ban is yet to be made. But importing fracked gas from elsewhere is still allowed—for now, at least.