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Editorial, Geoscientist 17.2 February 2007

Ted Nield on the joys of the flat…

I once organised a student field trip to see the Lias of Southerndown (Vale of Glamorgan) with my former professor, Derek Ager - during which he treated the rhythmic sediments to exhaustive palaeoenvironmental analysis – and steadfastly ignored the exciting deformation in the bay’s eastern corner, dismissing it (only half in jest) as “that tectonic nonsense over there”.

A year later I was studying the Silurian of Gotland for my PhD. Palaeozoic rocks, true; but how different from the gloomy, smashed-up shales of the Welsh Trough, with which my snout had become so familiar. These happy Swedish rocks dipped at 17 minutes of arc to the South East, each centimetre-thin bed traceable for kilometres along strike, hardly changed from the Thursday afternoon or wet August when it was laid down. Fresh as a lettuce - and not a ripple of tectonic nonsense anywhere. In nearby Öland, the Ordovician offered even less eventful stories – Anders Martinsson lovingly describing in Lethaia how a single arch of hardground, enclosing a cavity a few centimetres high, was formed, encrusted, bored by organisms and finally buried over a period of time whose years he counted in the hundreds of thousands.

I recently paid a return visit to the untroubled sedimentary veneer of the Baltic Shield during an organising committee meeting of the Association of European Geological Societies (AEGS) in the beautiful Hanseatic port of Tallinn. AEGS serves all the Societies of the wider Europe by organising an international conference every two years, and we were there to monitor preparations for MAEGS-15 (Georesources and public policy: research, management, environment 16-20 September 2007).

Estonia is a small country, remarkable for many things – not least of which being its almost total reliance on kukersite (also known as “oil shale”, which is odd as it contains neither oil nor shale) for the generation of electricity. During this meeting we visited several working quarries where this toffee-like immature source-rock is found – under many metres of overburden.

Uncovering, extracting, beneficiating and burning kukersite used to be a hugely environmentally damaging business. Now, with modern methods of extraction and combustion, the industry is losing its lumbering Soviet image - epitomised by the massive, derelict NKME, once the world’s largest dragline machine, much boasted of in organs like Soviet Weekly.

Bigger than Blackpool Tower and ballroom put together, this sad paralysed behemoth is now awaiting any scrap dealer with €800,000 to spare, reminding one of Martin Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. May God help me, I can do no other”. But, as this month’s feature explains (pp ??-??), Estonia cannot afford to stand still. To fuel its burgeoning growth it cannot do otherwise than use its kukersite. The idea of putting its post-Soviet boom in hock to gas supplies from its former occupier, is as unacceptable politically as the old methods of extracting and burning kukersite were unacceptable environmentally.

Happily, with high prices fuelling new research, the prospect of eventually extracting the energy of Ordovician sunlight without removing the rock from the ground at all, appears to be within sight of economic viability.

And that really is exciting stuff.