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Oil production in West Lothian in Scotland started in 1851. It was not the first place to produce oil from shale but it was the largest and most successful. This oil production led to major developments in oil refining and, as a result, a large demand for oil products was created. This new demand for oil products stimulated the search for oil around the world and resulted in the first modern-day oil well being drilled in Titusville Pennsylvania in 1859.

Over the next 100 years, an estimated 75 MMbbl (million barrels) of oil and 500 Bcf (billion cubic ft) of gas were produced from the shales of West Lothian. Initially, the oil was produced from a thin layer of shale at Torbanehill near Bathgate. Later, the much thicker deposits in the Dinantian West Lothian Oil-shale Formation (WLO) were used to produce the oil, although there was also oil produced from other shales mostly in the Lower Coal Measures and Limestone Coal Formation.

This paper looks at the Scottish oil-shale industry from the viewpoint of the modern-day shale-gas industry and highlights the contribution the industry made as the forerunner of the oil industry. The paper attempts to explain why the Scottish oil-shale industry was so successful and influential. Reasons why the oil-shale industry did not develop into modern oil-well production are also put forward.

The Scottish shale-oil industry was successful not only thanks to James Young and his colleagues but also because of the geology of the Central Belt of Scotland and, in particular, the geochemical properties of the WLO.

The shale-oil industry, natural oil seepage, free oil encountered during mining and the historical exploration drilling demonstrate a rich functioning source rock suggesting significant prospectivity for future exploration for both oil fields and shale gas.

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