SNP running out of places to hide on fracking

It sometimes feels that fracking is the only energy issue in the UK at present. However, developments this week make it much less likely that we will see unconventional gas being used in Scotland or the rest of the UK.

Two weeks ago, here at Utilities Scotland, Dave Watson set out the shrewd politics behind Labour’s Smith Commission plan to devolve the licensing of onshore gas exploration – removing the Scottish Government’s ‘political fig leaf’. That was quickly followed by Jim Murphy’s pledge on a fracking moratorium in Scotland. He said:

“Scottish Labour would introduce a triple-lock system to halt any onshore fracking taking place in Scotland until environmental and health safeguards are in place. This involves:

•           A local referendum before final planning approval is given;
•           Halting any fracking in Scotland until the lessons of fracking in the rest of the UK are learned;
•           A comprehensive review of the baseline conditions before any planning application is granted; “

This was followed up by a UK Labour amendment at Westminster yesterday. Shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex MP said:

“Labour have tabled an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill that will stop shale gas extraction. It will mean that it cannot go ahead until the right protections for the public and environment are in place.”

Somewhat unexpectedly, this resulted in a spectacular last minute U-turn to save the UK government’s Infrastructure Bill. Energy secretary Ed Davey accepted the Labour amendment that stops fracking until 13 environmental loopholes in the shale gas regulations are closed. It seems that Tory and LibDem backbenchers recognised that local objections to fracking counted for more than the business interests they usually support. Anyone would think that an election was in the offing!

The SNP have spent the day desperately trying to highlight that MPs didn’t vote for their separate amendment. The very fact that they even tabled an amendment at Westminster is strange when the Scottish Government already has the power to ban fracking in Scotland. They did it for new nuclear power, but why not for fracking?

Part of the answer to that question came out in the Sunday Herald. The south Scotland MSP, Joan McAlpine, had protested to Nicola Sturgeon about the behaviour of the Scottish energy minister, Fergus Ewing, after he carpeted her for criticising the Duke of Buccleuch’s plans to mine coalbed methane at Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. She said Ewing’s undisguised support for developing underground gas was damaging the government’s credibility in communities across Scotland. Canonbie residents fear that they have been “sold out” in a “stitch-up” by the minister.

Utilities Scotland has also previously highlighted the actions of Ineos in buying up exploration licenses. It is inconceivable that they would have made that investment if they believed the Scottish Government was opposed to fracking.

If you cut through the political froth it simply boils down to this. The SNP has been trying to face two ways on fracking for years. Telling communities that they share their concerns, blaming Westminster when they have always had the power to block fracking here in Scotland immediately. They have now run out of places to hide and we await Fergus Ewing’s statement in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow with interest.

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Postscript.

Fergus Ewing announced a moratorium to allow for public consultation. The political pressure triumphed over the political games, when it became clear that the public now understood that the Scottish Government had the power to act. The Westminster blame game ran out of steam on this occasion. It remains to be seen how long this will hold, but it’s a fair bet that we won’t see fracking in Scotland this side of the 2016 election. That at least, is a result.

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  • Posted in: Gas

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