Scottish ministers have rejected calls for a watertight legal ban on fracking, promising instead that they would use planning policy to block the technology indefinitely.

In a long-awaited announcement energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, has told the Scottish Parliament that fracking was “incompatible” with the Scottish Government’s bid to cut climate pollution and take carbon out of the economy. He said the government will not issue licences to fracture – or frack – underground rocks to access shale gas, nor to extract underground coalbed methane.

The announcement of a “final policy position” comes after eight years of controversy over fracking including a moratorium, three consultations, a raft of expert reports, and a high-profile court case. Fossil fuel companies such as the Grangemouth petrochemical giant, Ineos, had wanted to frack for gas under large areas of the central belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Ministers under mounting pressure to outlaw fracking

“The Scottish Government’s final policy position is that we do not support the development of unconventional oil and gas (UOG) – often known as fracking – in Scotland,” Wheelhouse told MSPs.

“That decision followed consideration of many factors including the significant negative effects that UOG development could have on our natural environment and the health and wellbeing of communities, while bearing in mind the overwhelming feedback from the public that this should not be permitted in Scotland.”

He added: “After a comprehensive evidence-gathering exercise, we have concluded that the development of onshore unconventional oil and gas is incompatible with our policies on climate change, energy transition and the decarbonisation of our economy. Fracking can only happen if licences are issued and we do not intend to issue any licences which would permit that.”

But the minister turned down demands to introduce a legislative ban. “I am mindful of the fact that there have been calls from stakeholders, and from colleagues in this chamber, for a legislative ban on unconventional oil and gas in Scotland,” he said.

“We do not consider that new legislation is necessary at this time to control unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland; a strong policy position enacted through devolved planning powers and licensing is – we believe – robust, evidence-led and sufficient. However that option remains open if there is evidence over time that further action is required.”

Wheelhouse promised that the policy of not supporting fracking would be reflected in the next national planning framework in 2020-21. “Once the new national planning framework has been approved, no government will be able to adopt a revised national planning framework to support unconventional oil and gas development without the backing of the Scottish Parliament,” he pointed out.

When it comes to corporations like Ineos, we don’t think hope is enough. Donald Campbell, Broad Alliance of communities opposed to fracking

Friends of the Earth Scotland highlighted that more than 60,000 people had opposed fracking in consultations. “It is of course very welcome that ministers have announced they are keeping the indefinite moratorium on fracking in place, but frustrating that today’s decision falls short of the full legal ban that would put the issue to bed once and for all,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“The inclusion of the policy of no support for fracking in the national planning framework would certainly strengthen the present position, but the energy minister acknowledged that he can’t confirm this will happen before the next Holyrood elections, which could see a new government with a different approach to fracking in power.”

She added: “The minister indicated that the door hadn’t been closed on legislating to prohibit fracking if evidence that further action was needed arose, and we urge the parliamentary parties who are opposed to the industry to stay vigilant. Clearly the government hasn’t gone as far as they should have, but the fact that there has been no fracking in Scotland for the last five years is a huge victory for campaigners and communities across Scotland.”

The Broad Alliance of community groups opposed to fracking and related technologies described the government’s announcement as “a partial victory for communities”, but added that “a legal ban is what we really need.”

A statement from the alliance warned that the new policy position could be open to legal challenge.  “It is good news that fracking is blocked – it is a pity it isn’t banned so we could say job done,” said alliance chair, Donald Campbell.

“There is a similar policy presumption against new nuclear developments in Scotland, and so far there has been no attempt to build new power stations on existing nuclear sites, as has happened in England where there is government support. We hope the same will happen with fracking but in all honesty, when it comes to corporations like Ineos, we don’t think hope is enough.”

Scottish Government move to renew Ineos fracking licence ‘disappointing’

Scottish Labour’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP, regretted the failure to introduce a legal ban. “The SNP government must ensure that the necessary changes to the national planning framework are implemented within this parliamentary term,” she said.

“We are living in a climate emergency, and fracking must never be allowed to darken Scotland’s door. We must ensure through a just transition that we have well paid unionised jobs as part of the green jobs revolution.”

The Scottish Greens claimed a “victory” in the fight against fracking. “I am delighted that the Scottish Greens have been able to deliver the fracking ban that communities have been calling for,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“We’ve pushed the Scottish Government all the way on this issue, ever since we led the first debate on the subject in 2012, and have worked with communities across the country to highlight the major public health and environmental concerns that fracking presented.”

Fracking involves pumping fluids into rock formations deep underground to cause fractures and release shale gas, which can then be used to heat buildings. Its backers say it will bring significant economic benefits.

The gist of the Scottish Government’s announcement was inadvertently revealed on 2 October after a “clerical error” by officials resulted in a summary being posted on a government website. Wheelhouse apologised to MSPs for the mistake, and promised to improve procedures.

The decision followed repeated delays dating back to 2015 when the government first introduced a moratorium on fracking. In 2017 ministers announced an “effective ban” but were taken to court by Ineos.

The court threw out a multi-million damages claim from the Grangemouth company but concluded that the Scottish Government had not banned fracking. The government’s lawyer described the ban in court as “PR gloss”.

Ineos and the fracking industry have been approached for comment.

Fracking over the years

2011: Companies propose sites in central and southwest Scotland to drill for underground gas.
April 2014: Public inquiry into plans to extract coalbed methane around Falkirk.
August 2014: Petrochemical giant, Ineos, purchases fracking rights in central Scotland.
January 2015: Energy minister, Fergus Ewing, announces a moratorium on fracking and coalbed methane.
October 2015: Thousands protest against plans for underground coal gasification.
December 2015: The Ferret publishes a series of stories on fracking.
March 2016: Nicola Sturgeon says she is “highly sceptical” about fracking.
June 2016: Scottish Parliament votes for an “outright ban” on fracking.
October 2016: Scottish Government rules out underground coal gasification.
November 2016: Scottish Labour propose bill to ban fracking.
January 2017: Scottish Government launches first public consultation on fracking.
May 2017: The Ferret publishes story about fracking in Pennsylvania.
May 2017: Over 60,000 respond to consultation on fracking, 99 per cent of them opposed.
October 2017: Scottish Government announces “effective ban” on fracking, backed by the Scottish Parliament.
January 2018: Ineos launches legal action to sue the Scottish Government for multi-million pound damages for banning fracking.
February 2018: Scottish Government gains devolved powers over onshore oil and gas licensing for fracking.
June 2018: Court of Session rejects Ineos’s bid for damages on the grounds that Scotland has no legally enforceable ban on fracking.
July 2018: Scottish Government extends fracking licence for Ineos until July 2019.
October 2018: Scottish Government publishes a “preferred policy” of not supporting fracking, and launches second public consultation.
March 2019: Leading lawyer says that fracking must be outlawed to protect human health and the environment.
April 2019: Scottish Government launches third public consultation.
July 2019: Scottish Government again extends fracking licence for Ineos until July 2020.
October 2019: Scottish Government announces final policy of “no support” for fracking.

All The Ferret’s previous stories about fracking can be read here. This story was updated at 17.15 on 3 October 2019 to include comments from the Broad Alliance of community group opposed to fracking.

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