UK Government told to overrule Holyrood’s underground gas ban

A lobby group with close ties to the Tory party has urged Westminster to overrule the Scottish Government and allow the exploitation of underground gas at two “dirty and dangerous” sites north of the border.

The proposal was made by the pressure group, Net Zero Watch, in a press release after the UK Government broke a manifesto pledge and lifted its moratorium on fracking in England on 22 September despite a leaked report showing it still posed an earthquake risk. 

Net Zero Watch is a campaign launched and managed by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) which is considered to be the UK’s most prominent climate science denial group. The GWPF has links to senior Tory MPs who have led a backlash against the UK’s climate targets.

The group called for “national security measures” to be used by Westminster to ‘override’ Scottish Government bans on gas production at one site at Airth, near Falkirk, and another under the Firth of Forth.

Plans by developers to extract gas at both Airth and under the Forth were dropped in the face of strong opposition from green campaigners and local residents throughout the 2010s. Fracking – a controversial extraction technique which involves fracturing rocks to release natural gas – was not expected to be carried out at either of the sites. 

But environmental groups have warned that the Airth and Forth projects would still be “incredibly harmful” to the climate and bring “serious local health and environmental risks”. They told The Ferret that any attempt by the UK Government to “force” the projects on communities “would be a disgrace”.

The Scottish Government confirmed that it remains opposed to the development of unconventional oil and gas projects in Scotland. It pointed out that powers over onshore oil and gas licensing are devolved and added that it does not intend to issue any licences.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens said that the lobby group’s proposals showed a “fundamental misunderstanding of how devolution works” and a “contempt for democracy”.

The UK Government is yet to respond to a request for comment by The Ferret. 

“Wherever these dirty and dangerous industries are proposed, they will be resisted once again.”

Freya Aitchison, Friends of the Earth Scotland

The GWPF was co-founded by the former Conservative chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who remains a trustee alongside the leading Brexiteer and Tory MP for Wycombe, Steve Baker

Baker is also the founder of Westminster’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), which is made up of backbench Conservative MPs and opposed to many of the UK’s net zero policies. 

The NZSG’s chair, Craig Mackinlay, has also employed the GWPF’s head of policy as a parliamentary aide. 

Based at 55 Tufton Street alongside a number of other opaque right-wing think tanks, the GWPF does not disclose its donors. However, it has reportedly received considerable funding from a foundation with millions of dollars worth of investments in oil, gas and coal companies. 

Net Zero Watch has repeatedly claimed that the cost of living crisis is a result of net zero policies and has been vocal in its support for fracking. Its press release also argued that new coal mines and coal-fired power plants should be developed in the UK. 

The term unconventional gas refers to any method of obtaining natural gas that requires new, or advanced methods, including fracking. The Scottish Government has had a policy of ‘no support’ for all unconventional oil and gas production since 2019. 

The fossil fuel giant, Ineos, dropped plans to extract gas from underground coal seams at Airth in 2020, following the announcement of Holyrood’s position. 

The gas at Airth was expected to be produced using a method known as coalbed methane extraction. This involves pumping large quantities of water into the coal seams until they release the trapped gas. 

Environmentalists are opposed to coalbed methane extraction partly because it produces gas which will exacerbate the climate crisis when burned, but also because the water released during production may worsen overall water quality and use up underground water supplies. 

Plans to gasify coal under the Firth of Forth were shelved in 2015. Underground coal gasification involves injecting oxygen or air into underground coal reserves in order to produce a gas which can be used to generate power. 

fracking ban
The Scottish Government has a position of ‘no support’ for unconventional gas production, like fracking.

According to a 2015 report by Scotland’s green watchdog, Sepa, gasifying coal under Scotland’s seas could cause pollution, earthquakes, underground explosions and “uncontrollable” fires. 

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s oil and gas campaigner, Freya Aitchison, told The Ferret that communities across the UK had already “fought and stopped” unconventional gas projects. 

“Wherever these dirty and dangerous industries are proposed, they will be resisted once again,” Aitchison said.

“Any move to try and force through fracking or other unconventional fossil fuel projects on communities in Scotland or anywhere else would be a disgrace. Not only is the industry incredibly harmful in climate terms it also brings with it serious local health and environmental risks. 

“Climate science is clear that we can have no new oil and gas extraction if we are to stay within agreed climate limits – scrapping the moratorium on fracking flies in the face of these warnings.”

The Scottish Greens’ energy and environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, called the potential return of fracking in England “very concerning”.

Ruskell said: “It may not have a direct impact on Scotland, but all governments must move forward together in tackling the climate crisis. Greens will be standing in support and solidarity with communities who are being used in this reckless anti-climate experiment.

“Calls for Downing Street to overrule Holyrood should be resisted. They show a fundamental misunderstanding of how devolution works and a contempt for democracy.

“We cannot frack or drill our way out of a crisis. What we need is a far-reaching and immediate investment in renewables, energy efficiency and a just transition from oil and gas.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our position is clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations. Our position is supported by the UK and Scottish Government’s statutory advisers on climate change.

“In October 2019, the Scottish Government confirmed its final policy position that it does not support the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland. This remains our position. 

“Powers over onshore oil and gas licensing were devolved to the Scottish Government in February 2018. This means that fracking can only happen if licences are issued, and we do not intend to issue any licences which would permit fracking.”

You can read our coverage of fracking in Scotland here

Andrew Montford, who is based in Scotland and a deputy director at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, argued that it is “better to use local gas – in terms of energy security and carbon emissions” like that produced by fracking and unconventional production, than to import it. 

Montford said: “Of course, people who have been deceived by scaremongering stories in the media might be angry.

“But probably not as angry as people will be if they are left without heat and light this winter. Saving the economy, and probably lives too, means getting the price of gas down and the price of power from gas turbines down. 

“Most of the other ideas that are currently touted are wrong, and will anyway come too late to save businesses and households from ruin.”

Photo credit: iStock/bashta

This story was updated at 12.59 on 23 September 2022 to add a comment from the Scottish Greens.

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