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US shale gas arrives in the UK for the first time ... and causes quite a stir

The JS INEOS Insight shale gas tanker sails under the Forth Rail Bridge as it arrives in Scotland before docking at INEOS Grangemouth.
Stuart Wallace | Ineos
The JS INEOS Insight shale gas tanker sails under the Forth Rail Bridge as it arrives in Scotland before docking at INEOS Grangemouth.

Shale gas from the U.S. arrived on the shores of the U.K. for the first time Tuesday, sparking a wider debate about the impacts of the industry on the environment and the global economy.

Amid much fanfare, a Scottish bagpiper greeted a ship called the Ineos Insight on the banks of Grangemouth in east Scotland. Its cargo was 27,500 cubic meters of ethane from U.S. shale fields. However, disgruntled campaigners used the boat's arrival to dismiss the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Scotland currently has a ban on the technology, which unlocks underground oil and shale gas resources using high-pressure steam and chemicals, while in England it's still at the exploratory stage with the ruling Conservative backing the industry and extolling its virtues.

Ineo is a privately owned multinational chemicals company headquartered in Switzerland and Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire founder and chairman of the firm, says that he needs the shale gas to make chemical products, fuels and plastics at his Scottish plant. He told the BBC on Tuesday morning that the price of U.S. gas can be as much as a third of the price of U.K. gas, adding that the U.S. was "immensely more competitive" than his home nation where North Sea oil is in its "sunset years."

The company also states that it needs the cheaper gas to keep the plant open after it has "limped along for the last three years" and it wants to sustain the 10,000 jobs it provides in Scotland.

Campaigners are quick to point out that the gas is being supplied by Range Resources in the U.S., which was previously fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for violating environmental regulations. Ineos has a "corporate agenda that damages communities' health," the anti-fracking group Frack Off said on its website on Tuesday. Ineos is expected to be a major part of any shale gas industry that potentially germinates in the U.K.

Other critics highlight the rigorous public relations push that Ineos has undergone this week. The Ferret, an investigative journalism website, reported that journalists covering the Ineos Insight's arrival have been taken out to dinner, breakfast and lunch as well as being put up in a hotel overnight.

Meanwhile, an annual conference from the opposition Labour Party this week has added a little irony to Tuesday's arrival. Amid a slew of announcements from the Labour Party it said that it would ban fracking in England if it wins the next parliamentary elections, saying that the priority should be clean energy.

Lower oil prices has added fresh challenges for the sector in the U.S., but economists and analysts have been praising shale for years, saying it has spurred economic activity and contributed to the country's bounceback for the financial crash of 2008. Ratcliffe gave the example of Pittsburgh, when speaking to the BBC, saying that a "decaying" city had been "absolutely transformed" by this energy renaissance.