National planning policy and fracking

The new Scottish National Planning Framework includes a range of major energy projects and some restrictions on wind farms. However, anti-fracking groups are disappointed that there will be no national requirement for buffer zones around unconventional gas sites.

While the plan confirms the Scottish Government’s ambitious renewable targets it recognises the need for a minimum of 2.5 GW of thermal generation with CCS to meet our requirements and support diversification of supplies. There will be no nuclear new build in Scotland, although they don’t rule out extending the operating life of Scotland’s existing nuclear power stations at Hunterston B and Torness. Subject to strict safety considerations.

There will be opportunities for communities to develop energy generation, although the ambition remains at a small scale. The plans aim to achieve at least 500 MW of renewable energy in community and local ownership by 2020. CCS, pumped storage and hydroelectric power also feature in the plan.

Electricity grid enhancements will facilitate increased renewable electricity generation across Scotland. An updated national development focusing on enhancing the high voltage transmission network supports this, and will help to facilitate offshore renewable energy developments. Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) also have plans to make essential upgrades to the distribution networks.

The absence of buffer zones around fracking sites in the plan came under most criticism. Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: “They may not be as gung-ho as Westminster but the Scottish government has failed to come down on the side of communities worried about the impacts of fracking. Greens proposed a 2km buffer zone but this has been rejected and now it will be up to developers to put forward a plan for approval. We already have standard buffer zones for wind farms and coal mines, so why not gas extraction?”

The Falkirk campaign group feel badly let down after assurances they thought they were given at the SNP conference. They said:

“It is with utter consternation that we now discover that our Scottish Government is intending to allow the industry to set their own buffer zones i.e. to self-regulate. Given recent experience in the Banking, Press and Food Industries self-regulation does not work. The Scottish Government’s claim to be listening to communities or wishing to protect them is seriously in doubt if this policy is permitted. The self interest of corporate business and their legitimate goal of profit maximisation prohibits them from seeking the best interests of communities and the environment.”

UK ministers claims that there are no US studies on water contamination linked to fracking. However, the TUC has highlighted several published academic studies. One shows concentrations of methane, propane and ethane in drinking water wells across Pennsylvania, where extensive shale gas fracking is taking place. The reason is leaking or fractured drills that pass through the water table into the shale gas rocks below.

The TUC also argues that the UK government’s infrastructure bill should fast track investment in carbon capture and storage technology, rather than accelerating a dash for onshore gas through fracking. Their study shows that job for job, the case for CCS seems to be far more compelling, as CCS lowers carbon emissions. Shale gas could boost greenhouse gas emissions through methane release, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Of course planning policies only enable developments. Delivering on the Scottish Government’s energy plans will be much more challenging. They can also be sure that the anti-fracking lobby will be watching them all the way.

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