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The Bings Of West Lothian

Oil shale is oily stuff, same as shale oil...


Between Edinburgh and Glascow there lies a very shallow belt of oil shale sediments, a lot of which was once visible on the surface and in creek and riverbeds. The belt is about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide. These oil shales were interbedded with lignite and believed to have been deposited in a shallow sea that moved back and forth over tens of millions of years in this part of northern Scotland. The shale was slate like, flaky, and the kerogens in the shale could be scraped with chipped rock knives and burned. They were carboniferous in nature, rich in organic matter, and made good fires. In some areas within the trend the oil shale was so rich that rocks could simply be piled up and burned.

These oil shales had been used for centuries by the Scots, much like coal in other parts of the country, and probably kept the likes of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace warm while they sipped meade and planned the next, violent "hackings" of their dreaded enemies, the English, in the early 14th century.

As a side note to the comment, above, in my recent travels to Scotland I was surprised to sense how much the English way of life and governing, were embraced by people in the East, not so much by traditionalists in the Highlands of the West where there is still the occasional shaking of the head and mutterings of discontent during Sunday morning in the Free Church of Scotland... not to be confused with the Church of England.

In 1848 a young Scot named, James Young (1811-1883) devised a way to actually refine the interbedded lignite that was often found in oil shale beds of the area and he mined this coal, and refined it, quite successfully, for a decade. From this lignite, Young refined naphtha, paraffin oil, paraffin wax, coke and even ammonia sulphate that was then used for fertilizer. These refined products were so highly cherished that Young became very wealthy and European history suggests Youngs' refineries were thought to be the first, commercial refinery entities in the world.

Once the lignite depleted within the trend, Young then turned his attention to the oil shale itself and mined, and refined that in the area for many years.

By 1910 refined oil shale from this region in Scotland was shipped all over Europe and its liquids played a minor, but important role in War War 1.

The existence of this oil shale provided thousands of Scottish miners and refinery workers with steady employment and enrichment of the local economy.

After WW1 this Scottish oil shale play received some actual test drilling to deeper depths, below, none of which proved successful save for some minor lignitie associated gas that was piped to nearby homes. It appears that oil shale may be actually piled up outside the steam engine building as a fuel source for the boilers.

The tailings from oil shale mines, once processed and squeezed of valuable kerogens, had to simply be piled up in the Scottish countryside. Today the region is dotted with the waste heaps, called, "bings."

The Five Sister Bings near West Calder, 1947

Over the decades these waste heaps were used for road topping material; many were simply left standing. As degradation occurred, sinking and movement of the bings happened, even combustion of the tailings occured. Often these bings could be seen glowing and smoldering stream for months at a time. When the area smelled of roast beef in the prevailing wind, local residents knew somebody's cows had wandered up onto a bing and fell into a hole, only to be slow roasted.


This was fun to write and a wonderful reminder how few places there are on the planet that have not been probed, proded and picked at for hydrocarbons and the human being's insatiable need for energy.

Iowa? Numerous fairly deep tests for gas in the Mid-Continent Rift? Fiji? Unsuccessful hydrocarbons tests led to geothermal discoveries. Iceland and Greenland, the same. Zimbabwe? Numerous wells drilled in the Highlands. Suriname? Done, recently with some nice discoveries. Denmark? Good oil wells that Germany coveted during WW II. Japan? Been there, done that. There are 35,000 foot, 25,000 PSI BHP sub-salt gas hydrates being explored in the Gulf of Mexico, in 15,000 feet of water. For centuries we have searched, and found hydrocarbons, made the best with what we had to work with. Now it should not come as a surprise that Mother Earth is tired and exhausted of Her amazing gifts. The cheap stuff is gone; the last quarter of this hydrocarbon game is going to be very, very expensive.

There is cool stuff about Scottish oil shales on the internet and a really interesting website held by the Museum of Scottish Shale Oil Industry.


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