Last year, the UK government gave a cautious go-ahead to fracking, after years of a moratorium following concerns about minor earth tremors near the Caudrilla exploration site in Lancashire. The company has since restarted test drilling in the area, against intense opposition from activists determined to prevent the birth of a viable onshore gas and oil extraction industry in the UK.
These activists may not have managed to sway the government in Westminster, but they have the Scottish government on their side (Scottish government backs ban on fracking). Although the intention to continue the existing moratorium indefinitely needs to be endorsed by the Holyrood parliament, only Conservative MSPs will oppose it, so it is a done deal, to all intents and purposes.
The SNP appear to see no downside to their decision. After all, they follow France, Germany and Ireland – and even Bulgaria – in imposing a de facto ban. England seems to be out of step with the rest of the EU and campaigners are determined to prevent a potentially successful shale gas industry develop to tempt other countries to change their position.
The Westminster government has often been in the minority on environmental issues across the EU, mainly because ministers tend to follow the advice of scientific advisers rather than the demands of campaigners. On GM crops and the ban on use of neonicotinoid insecticides, for example, the UK has been in the minority in listening to and following the advice of its scientists.
When the SNP government originally introduced a temporary embargo in 2015, it did the right thing in commissioning a series of expert studies to inform its later position. These covered economic impacts, decommissioning and aftercare, climate change impacts, seismic activity, health impacts and community impacts. These studies were completed last year and were broadly positive about the well-regulated use of fracking (What do the Scottish government’s six fracking reports say?).
The only exception was regarding health, where Health Protection Scotland concluded from a literature review that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, they recommended that, if fracking went ahead, “a precautionary approach could be adopted which involves operational best practice, regulatory frameworks and community engagement.”
The Scottish government also carried out a public consultation, and it was this that took precedence. The Energy Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said “the consultation came back with ‘overwhelming’ opposition to fracking, with 99% of the 60,000 respondents supporting a ban. He said this showed that ‘there is no social licence for unconventional oil and gas to be taken forward at this time’".
However, this consultation gives a falsely democratic justification for the ban. First, the response rate was very low: about 1.5% of the number of registered voters in Scotland and, since the consultation was open to anyone, an even lower percentage of the potential turnout. Second, the consultation website (Talking “fracking” – a consultation on unconventional oil and gas) was not one to be dipped into lightly by the average citizen, instead offering considerable background information and requiring a degree of interest found amongst campaigners rather than the man or woman in the street.
Which is why it is not entirely surprising that the response was as overwhelmingly in one direction as the results of elections for Soviet officials. Campaigners are good at organising their supporters to respond to things such as this. Companies involved in the industry also respond, but members of the public ambivalent to the whole issue or frankly not interested would not offer any balance.
This is a pity, because a domestic supply of gas to replace the fast-declining North Sea fields would be beneficial both to the economy and to the millions of people in fuel poverty. The elephant in the room, however, is climate change policy. The strategy of most campaigners is to discourage any development of fossil fuels, even as a reliable stop-gap while reliable sources of renewable energy are developed. This trumps all other considerations.
In this vein, the Holyrood parliament has also effectively banned underground coal gasification, which could potentially use the country’s large remaining coal reserves to generate methane. This would avoid the dangers of mining while providing a fuel which is both cleaner and lower in carbon than coal itself.
In practice, these potential new domestic sources of energy are replaced by imported gas, together with the remaining supply from the North Sea. There would be no impact on global carbon dioxide emissions, as the Committee on Climate Change itself acknowledged in the study it submitted to the Scottish government.
South of the border, meanwhile, Ineos (operator of Scotland’s Grangemouth refinery, significant local employer and importer of US shale gas) has exploration rights across large areas of northern England, and Cuadrilla continues to do exploratory drilling. This, though, continues to meet strong opposition from a hard core of activists (Tensions rise at fracking site in UK after police and activists clash).
There is inevitably local opposition from people concerned about potential noise or health effects, following the negative messages from campaigners. But it seems that the main campaigners are not local and use highly disruptive tactics to block legitimate and legal exploration. The chief executive of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan is quoted as saying the “charade of a so-called peaceful protest should be condemned and halted. I strongly condemn the increased illegal and aggressive behaviour of activists which has put all road users near our Preston New Road site at serious risk. The majority of these irresponsible individuals are from outside the local area and seem determined to use regular disruption to local road users, and abuse and violence towards police and security staff, as so called direct action tactics.”
It is still uncertain whether shale gas can be profitably extracted in the UK, but properly regulated exploration should be allowed to go ahead without being blocked by a highly vocal minority. Only if shale gas production is properly evaluated in one country will we see if it has a future across the rest of Europe.