Looking back at glory days of shale oil mining

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YOU don’t have to look too far to see the results of shale oil mining on the Lothian landscape.

Head west out of Edinburgh and the pinkish-red bings which sit on the outskirts of Broxburn and Winchburgh rise out from the ground like miniature, man-made replicas of the great Uluru in Australia.

a shaker conveyor delivers cut shale at the Breich Pit

a shaker conveyor delivers cut shale at the Breich Pit

Rather than scars, they are monuments to an industry which once employed 5000 people and made the area the shale oil capital of the world – something which many believe could happen in the Lothians again if fracking is given the green light.

A new report by the British Geological Society estimates that central Scotland could hold 80 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and six billion barrels of shale oil – and that if just ten per cent of that were extracted it would meet 
Scotland’s energy needs for nearly 30 years and create as many as 10,000 jobs.

Most of the gas is believed to be below ground in the areas of Mid and East Lothian which line the Forth, but the idea of blasting underground near a water source is, of course, rife with problems.

Back in the 1850s when the shale oil industry kicked off, such environmental concerns were way down the list of priorities for the men who made a fortune out of heating rocks and coals to extract a liquid similar to petrol and turn it into paraffin.

workers clock in at the shale oil works at Roman Camp, Broxburn in 1956

workers clock in at the shale oil works at Roman Camp, Broxburn in 1956

The major breakthrough was made by chemist James Young – who would later be called Paraffin Young and make a fortune from his patented processes of extraction – and it was to West Lothian he came to tap the natural resources for his oil.

“Shale oil doesn’t occur in many places in the world as it’s an unusual geological material, and in Britain it was West Lothian where the biggest deposits were,” says Robin Chester, director of the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry, part of the Almond Valley Heritage Trust in Livingston which is undertaking a major programme of research into the Victorian enterprise. “There was some in Lanarkshire, a little bit in Burntisland and at Straiton, but that was the extent of it.

“Shale isn’t the result of the same process as coal, which is why it’s not so widespread. Around 340 million years ago this part of the world was on the edge of a tropical lagoon where algae grew, and it didn’t turn into coal like swamp materials did over millions of years, it became shale.”

Not that shale was Young’s first choice. When he opened his mineral oil works at Bathgate it was torbanite he was extracting. It wasn’t until 1860 when supplies of that particular rock were dwindling that he realised shale was the future.

He established Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company to develop a massive new works at Addiewell, then linked up with other shale mines in West Calder and his business went global. In the meantime the Broxburn Oil Company and the Pumpherston Oil Company were set up to challenge his dominance of the industry.

“It was hard, dirty work for the men of the mines,” says Robin – and the Museum’s growing collection of photographs from the time proves his point. “At its height it employed around 5000 men and around two million tonnes of shale were being extracted every year.

“But it shouldn’t be over-estimated. There were probably only ever 20 significant shale oil mines in West Lothian and they only ever produced one per cent of the world’s production and that was at its height.

“It soon began to struggle against coal and petrol from other parts of the world but people here continued to use it as it was seen as being patriotic.”

In fact, while shale oil did sell well for a short time, what really made Young his money were his patented methods of extraction as others had to license them to use them in other parts of the world.

In the early 20th century the shale oil mines were finding other outlets for their products such as ammonium sulphate fertiliser which proved so profitable the companies were able to invest in new technologies and in good quality housing for their workers.

But the fortunes of the industry changed rapidly during the First World War and a government supported scheme to develop cheap crude oil in the Gulf meant imports undermined Scottish shale oil – although in 1919 a pipeline from Grangemouth docks to Uphall was laid to carry crude to the shale works to be refined.

An independent inquiry found no reason for the continuation of the shale industry, and mines and oil works began to close. However, a new plant was built at Pumpherston to convert the declining industry’s output to diesel and petrol. There was a brief reprise before the Second World War when imports were threatened and a massive crude oil works opened at Westwood near West Calder, finally closing in 1962.

The last vestige of the industry was the Pumpherston detergent plant – some of the first synthetic detergents were produced from the shale – but it too closed in 1993.

And as for the potential of shale oil making a big return, Robin is sceptical. “There’s none left in West Lothian and I’d imagine any seams will be very thin and hard to reach without creating problems.

“But it was a major industry and is part of Scotland’s heritage, so we are making sure that it’s charted and not forgotten.”

First truly commercial oil works

IT was 164 years ago that James “Paraffin” Young lodged his patent for the procedure of making paraffin from rocks – a patent which would go on to make his fortune both here and in America.

After many experiments, the Glaswegian chemist discovered that by heating shale and torbanite at a low heat, a fluid like petroleum would seep out and that by slow distillation he could obtain what he called “paraffin oil” because it congealed into a substance resembling paraffin wax.

Along with his friends Edward Meldrum and Edward Binney, he set up E W Binney & Co at Bathgate which became the first truly commercial oil works in the world, using oil extracted from locally-mined torbanite and shale to manufacture lubricating oils. By 1856 they were selling both liquid paraffin for fuel use and solid paraffin.

In 1865 Young bought out his partners and built a larger works at Addiewell before the following year selling the business to Young’s Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, and retiring from active business.

The company expanded, selling paraffin oil and lamps across the world, and when torbanite reserves gave out, the company pioneered shale oil extraction. West Lothian had the only workable deposits of shale in Europe outside Russia.

By the 1900s nearly two million tonnes of shale were being extracted annually, employing 4000 men.