The Grangemouth petrochemical giant, Ineos, is attempting to resurrect plans to drill for underground gas in central Scotland, provoking alarm from communities and environmentalists.
Correspondence posted on the Scottish Government planning website discloses that the multinational company is urging officials to recommend in favour of a long-delayed application to extract coal bed methane at Airth, near Falkirk.
This has been condemned as “outrageous” by campaigners, who warn that the threat of “dirty development” is still hanging over local people. They are calling on Ineos to “admit defeat and walk away” – and for the government to stand firm.
But the Scottish Government stresses that “planning decisions must be determined on their individual merits”. It hopes to decide “in due course” how the application should proceed.
The plan, first mooted in 2011, is to sink wells at 14 locations around Airth to extract methane gas from underground coal seams. It was the subject of a hotly disputed public inquiry in 2014, but has since been delayed as ministers tried to work out their policy on unconventional gas extraction on land, including coal bed methane and fracking for shale gas.
But despite the fact that the Scottish Government adopted a policy of “no support” for the technologies in October 2019, Ineos is now arguing that it can still give the go-ahead to the Airth gas wells. Government planning reporters still have to make a recommendation to ministers.
Ineos has previously attempted to open up Scotland and England to fracking, but without success. The plan to extract coal bed methane doesn’t currently include fracking – the hydraulic fracturing of underground rocks.
The company’s lawyer, Sandy Telfer from the global law firm DLA Piper, has written to government officials in recent months insisting that they must consider the coal gas application on its merits. The new government policy of no support was only one of several considerations that would have to be taken into account, he said.
“Their new policy of no support cannot be taken as meaning that the Scottish ministers will dismiss every onshore unconventional oil or gas development application that comes before them, regardless of its individual merits,” Telfer wrote in November 2019.
To do so would “breach the fundamental planning law principle that every application must be treated on its own merits”, he argued. It would also “constitute an effective and immediate ban on all onshore unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland”, he added.
An “effective ban” on fracking and related technologies imposed by ministers in 2017 was challenged in court by Ineos, resulting in a ruling that there was no ban. In 2019 Scottish ministers rejected a legal ban, choosing instead to adopt the no-support planning policy.
Telfer contended that evidence submitted to the Airth inquiry showed that methane leaks from wells could be dealt with under pollution prevention and control (PPC) regulations overseen by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. “Any potential pollution problems, including the potential climate change impacts arising from drilling, flaring and venting operations, could be safely left to the PPC authorisation process,” he said.
“The question then arising would be whether it would be lawful in these circumstances for the Scottish ministers to give little or no weight to that scientific evidence whilst giving overriding weight to their new policy of no support in order to justify refusal.”
In another letter in January 2020, Telfer added that Ineos would anticipate that government planning reporters would wish to test “the continuing validity” of the no support policy “taking account of the specific mitigation measures that have been proposed.”
The company’s stance has sparked angry reactions. “It is outrageous that Ineos is considering pushing ahead,” said Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“This dirty development has been hanging over the local community for far too long. Clearly in light of the Scottish Government’s final decision of no support for unconventional gas last autumn Ineos should admit defeat and walk away.”
Church expressed suspicion that Ineos was trying to squeeze compensation from taxpayers, rather than mine coal bed methane. “Whatever the motivation, people across Scotland, and the Scottish Government have said a resounding no to fracking, and Ineos should respect that democratic decision.”
She added: “The climate emergency means there is simply no excuse for any new fossil fuel developments. Ministers must revisit the need for a legislative ban on fracking.”
This dirty development has been hanging over the local community for far too long. Mary Church, Friends of the Earth Scotland
The Scottish Greens pointed out that communities in the Stirling and Falkirk areas had been living with “threat and uncertainty” for eight years. “With a robust climate policy now in place that rejects both fracking and coal bed methane extraction, ministers should make the decision and throw this out for good,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
Maria Montinaro, a founder member the local action group, Concerned Communities of Falkirk, argued that unconventional gas extraction was “incompatible” with Scotland’s target to cut climate pollution. “Communities still live with the threat of Scotland’s heartland becoming a gas field,” she said.
The campaign group, Frackwatch, warned that Ineos was using the outstanding planning application to test the strength of the government’s no-support policy. “They are right to say there is no legal ban on fracking,” said the group’s spokesperson, Penny Cole.
“The Scottish government will now have to demonstrate that their policy position is up to the job of keeping unconventional oil and gas out of Scotland, as they promised it would. If it doesn’t, then we will rapidly mobilise the community to fight all over again – and this time only a legal ban will do.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that its no-support policy followed a comprehensive evidence gathering and consultation process. “Our policy of no support for the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland is based on particular concerns we have identified,” said a spokesperson.
“These include the insufficiency of epidemiological evidence on health impacts highlighted by Health Protection Scotland; the concerns from communities across Scotland regarding transport impacts, risks of pollution, and on their general health and well-being – as well as concern over the compatibility of an unconventional oil and gas industry with Scotland’s climate change targets.”
The government recognised that onshore gas applications had to be determined “according to the law and policy in force at the relevant time” and that “planning decisions must be determined on their individual merits.”
The spokesperson added: “The reporters are currently considering how these appeals should proceed. The Planning and Environmental Appeals Division hope to be in a position to write to parties in due course confirming the reporters’ conclusions. Ministers will make the final decision on these appeals following submission of a report and recommendation by the reporters.”
Ineos did not respond to a request to comment.
Ineos correspondence with Scottish Government
Photo of Grangemouth thanks to iStock/bashta.