Scottish ministers ban fracking amid ‘overwhelming’ public opposition
The Herald, by Tom Gordon
Fracking has been banned with immediate effect in Scotland, after a public consultation found almost universal opposition to it.
To the fury of the oil and gas industry, the SNP government announced it was extending a recent moratorium on the controversial technique “indefinitely” via the planning system.
Energy minister Paul Wheelhouse told MSPs the effective ban was based on concerns about public health, climate change and the lack of any support in local communities.
The marginal economic boost, 0.1 per cent of GDP, did not offset the negatives, he said.
Ineos, which hoped to use local gas to top up US imports at its Grangemouth plant, said the government was “turning its back on a potential manufacturing and jobs renaissance”.
The firm said the decision “beggared belief” and would deter inward investment in Scotland.
It also said Scotland could lose out to England, where fracking is licensed, a policy decision Mr Wheelhouse described as "gung-ho".
Ineos, which has invested £50m in fracking sites in Scotland, said it was now considering all options, including legal challenges to the government or planning authorities.
Shale boss Tom Pickering said: “What we were promised was a process and consultation absolutely grounded in fact and science and that’s not what we have had intimated.
“The public opinion surveys don’t ring true with our own experience on the ground.
“We took part in the consultation in good faith, resting on science. It’s for the Scottish Government to talk about the motivations behind their decision.
“We have behaved honorably in the process, but I think we are disappointed that it has not rested on the things that were set out.”
Gary Smith of GMB Scotland, which represents industry workers, said the decision was “mired in dishonesty” and “an abandonment of the national interest”.
He added: “The reality is that the ban means a future where will be increasingly dependent on importing fracked shale from the US into Grangemouth – a remarkable hypocrisy.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water and chemicals deep underground into shale beds to free methane gas.
Critics say it is a risk to pollution, public health and contributes to climate change, while advocates say it means jobs and greater energy security.
However academics have cast doubt on whether the Central Belt, home to most Scottish shale beds, have the right geology to make fracking commercially worthwhile.
The Scottish Government instituted a moratorium on fracking in January 2015 pending further research on health, the economy, the environment and the transport network.
A public consultation also attracted more than 60,000 responses.
More than 99 per cent of respondents were against fracking, with areas potentially affected by it overwhelmingly opposed.
Mr Wheelhouse said the government’s approach had been “cautious and evidence-led”.
He said he had been influenced by “insufficient” data about the long-term health impacts, the higher carbon emissions fracking would cause and which would need to be offset elsewhere, and the lack of a “social licence” from communities.
He said: “The Scottish Government will not support the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland.
“Having taken account of the interests of the environment, our economy, public health and the overwhelming majority of public opinion, the decision… means fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland. We have not taken the process or the decision lightly.
“It is clear that people across Scotland remain firmly opposed to fracking – this government has listened and taken decisive action.”
He said the government’s support for the chemicals industry remained “unwavering”.
Holyrood will vote on fracking later this year.
The decision comes just days before the SNP holds its annual conference in Glasgow, and should provide activists with a fillip as a second referendum recedes out of view.
It had also become politically impossible for the SNP to press ahead with fracking.
With Labour, the LibDems and Greens opposed, the Nationalists would have been reliant on Tory votes to pursue fracking, something the SNP grassroots would have loathed.
Mr Pickering, Operations Director of INEOS Shale, said: “It is a sad day for those of us who believe in evidence-led decision making.
“The Scottish Government has turned its back on a potential manufacturing and jobs renaissance and lessened Scottish academia’s place in the world by ignoring its findings.”
He said a Scottish shale industry could help offset the decline of North Sea oil and gas and contribute £1bn to local communities.
He went on: “The decision is a slight on the dedicated professionalism that Scottish workers have pioneered in the North Sea.
“I fear we will start to see large numbers of Scottish workers leaving the country to find work as the North Sea oil and gas industry continues to decline.
“Natural gas will be needed by Scotland for the foreseeable future and production from the North Sea continues to decline.
“This decision, which beggars belief, means gas becomes a cost for the Scottish economy instead of an ongoing source of income. “It speaks volumes about Scottish leadership on the world stage and sends a clear and negative message to any future investors in Scotland.
“Expert reports have clearly stated that this technology can be applied safely and responsibly – but it will be England that reaps the benefits.”
Herald View: Political expediency could be behind fracking ban
The Scottish Conservatives said SNP ministers had ignored a previous scientific report they commissioned, which said fracking was feasible with tough safeguards.
The Tories also accused ministers of “hypocrisy” for being “quite happy” to see US shale gas imported for processing at Grangemouth, while blocking extraction at home.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said the decision was “short-sighted and economically damaging”, and little more than a sop to the Green elements of the pro-independence movement.
He said: “ With the struggles the North Sea is facing, there could hardly be a better time to be getting on with this.
“Instead, the Scottish Government is killing this off while other parts of the world press ahead with fracking."
Labour and the Greens said the ban ought to be cemented in legislation.
Labour ‘s Claudia Beamish, who is pushing a bill to ban fracking at Holyrood, said: “This is a victory for Labour, environmental groups and communities across Scotland.
“Extending the moratorium indefinitely is not as strong as a full legal ban, and could be overturned at any point at the whim of a minister.
“These proposals don’t go far enough. They do not offer the protection of my Bill.
“That’s why I want the SNP government to work with me to ensure a full legal ban.”
Green MSP Mark Ruskell said: “We are still a long way from turning a planning moratorium into a watertight ban that can resist legal challenge from powerful companies like Ineos.
“The Scottish Government must commit using a combination of powers over planning, environmental regulation and licensing to deliver a permanent ban."
Mary Church, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “This is a huge win for the anti-fracking movement.
"Having put a moratorium in place more than two years ago, evaluated the evidence and consulted the people of Scotland, the Scottish Government has reached the right and sensible conclusion that the fracking industry must be banned to avoid potentially devastating impacts to people’s health, the climate and our natural environment.”
However she said it fell short of legal bans like those in Ireland, Victoria and Maryland, and called for legislation once Holyrood assumed control of onshore oil and gas licensing.
She added: “We urge the Scottish Government to go further than relying on planning powers… and instead commit to passing a law to ban the fracking industry for good.
“Legislating to ban fracking provides the strongest protection for communities and the environment."
Dr Sam Gardner, acting director of WWF Scotland, added: “The climate science is clear. The vast majority of fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground. “It’s fantastic Scottish Ministers agree that we need to start placing them off limits.”
Ken Cronin, Chief Executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said the government was ignoring experts, turning its back on jobs and potential tax receipts.
He said: “This is a poor decision, ignoring Scotland’s rich heritage and expertise in oil and gas. It is not based on the evidence from extensive independent research, which clearly states that with appropriate regulatory oversight and monitoring Scotland’s regulatory framework is sufficiently robust to manage onshore exploration and production.
“The significant benefits from production will now be lost, and the opportunity to develop a robust future energy mix discarded.
“This is a decision that is based on dogma not evidence or geo-political reality.”