A Scottish Government proposal to re-open a public inquiry into plans by Ineos to drill for underground coal gas in central Scotland has been greeted with dismay by campaigners.
The government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) has written to developers and objectors suggesting that an inquiry that closed six years ago should now re-convene to consider changes in policy – and Brexit.
The move follows The Ferret’s report on 18 February revealing that Ineos, which runs the Grangemouth petrochemical complex, was attempting to resurrect a plan to sink 14 gas wells around Airth, near Falkirk. The aim is to extract methane from underground coal seams, using a technology related to fracking.
The plan was first mooted in 2011 but because of local and national objections it went to a public inquiry in 2014. It has been delayed ever since as ministers worked out their policy on coal bed methane and fracking for shale gas, collectively known as unconventional oil and gas (UOG).
In October 2019, after prolonged consultations, the Scottish Government adopted a policy of “no support” for UOG. Objectors assumed this meant that extraction of coal bed methane at Airth would be blocked.
Now DPEA has told Telfer and objectors that government planning reporters think the inquiry needs to be re-opened. Reporters noted there had been “changes to the development plan”, said an email on 21 February, posted on the DPEA website.
“The reporters also consider ministers would wish to hear parties’ submissions on the implications (if any) of the UK’s departure from the European Union for the binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions that the UK was a signatory to. The reporters’ preliminary view is that this subject area would best be handled in a re-opened inquiry session.”
The DPEA also suggested that there was a need for further written submissions on legal changes and environmental impacts, particularly on the Firth of Forth. It asked for responses on all its procedural suggestions by 20 March, saying it would then organise deadlines and dates.
The prospect of the inquiry re-opening has upset environmental and community groups. “The apparent ongoing lack of clarity around whether or not fracking can go ahead in Scotland is becoming farcical,” said Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Despite the people of Scotland resoundingly rejecting onshore oil and gas extraction, and a lengthy government process that concluded in a position of no support for the industry, we are now faced with the reopening of the Airth coal bed methane inquiry to determine whether or not that project should be allowed to go ahead.”
Church called on the Scottish Government to reject Ineos plans. “Ministers must stand firm and reject any attempt by Ineos to push this climate-trashing development through,” she told The Ferret.
“Ineos should admit defeat and walk away, rather than wasting public money on an expensive extended inquiry, and worst of all keeping this dirty development hanging over the local community for even longer.”
Maria Montinaro, a Falkirk community councillor with 20 years experience, said: “It is past time for our elected government to consign this threat to the wellbeing of our communities to history.”
Another Falkirk community councillor, Walter Inglis, pointed out that Ineos had argued that the risk of gas leaks could be mitigated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. But the agency – as The Ferret has reported – has had it budget cut and its regulatory effectiveness questioned, he said.
He added: “Communities the length and breadth of Scotland have clearly and consistently expressed their concerns about the proposals to develop an industry based on UOG.”
Carol Anderson, a founder member of action group, Concerned Communities of Falkirk, recalled that taking part in the 2014 inquiry had been costly and demanding. Despite the policy of no-support for the industry, “the inquiry looks like being opened up again,” she said.
“It is a very lop-sided situation in which communities – who would bear the brunt of any development – are hugely disadvantaged. Ineos and the Scottish Government know this.”
The Scottish Greens called on ministers to “throw out” the Ineos application. “The communities who have been living with the threat and uncertainty coming from this proposal for the last eight years will be dismayed at this latest development,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
The Scottish Government pointed out that its no support policy “followed a comprehensive evidence-gathering and consultation process, and the necessary statutory and other assessments.”
A government spokesperson said: “Fracking could only happen if licences were issued – and we do not intend to issue any licences which would permit that.”
The government reiterated that applications required 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”.
It added: “The reporters are required to consider these appeals, unless withdrawn by the appellants, and to report with recommendations to Scottish ministers who will make the final decisions.”
Ineos did not respond to a request to comment.
The email suggesting re-opening the inquiry from the Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division
Photo thanks to Kirsi Jansa.