The Scottish Government is set to announce a ban on fracking, ending six years of fierce controversy.
Ministers are putting the finishing touches to a permanent ban, replacing the moratorium they started in January 2015. This will spell the end of industry’s plans to frack for shale gas under swathes of central Scotland.
An announcement has long been pencilled in for this week, before the parliamentary recess and the SNP annual conference. But The Ferret understands there’s a small risk it may be postponed by last-minute legal complications.
But there is no doubt about the government’s intention. A ban is seen as the best way to fulfil the SNP 2016 manifesto promise not to allow fracking “unless it can be proved beyond any doubt that it will not harm our environment, communities or public health.”
The manifesto, echoing the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also said the SNP was “deeply sceptical about fracking”. The programme for government launched on 5 September promised a decision “in the coming weeks”.
The Scottish Government is also committed to putting its verdict to the Scottish Parliament, and abiding by its decision. Only the Tories support fracking, and MSPs voted 32 to 29 in favour of an “outright ban” in June 2016, with the SNP abstaining.
There is huge opposition to fracking across the potentially impacted communities and amongst SNP members. There were more than 60,000 responses to the Scottish Government’s recent consultation, and the vast majority of those were expressing concerns.
“All roads now lead to a ban and I expect a ministerial statement to parliament this week,” said Mark Ruskell MSP, Scottish Green environment spokesperson.
“The current moratorium is on shaky legal ground and any permanent ban has to be watertight to withstand sustained attacks from the fracking industry.”
As yet, the details of the proposed ban are unclear. Close observers say that the main options are a legal ban, a policy ban, or something in between.
Friends of the Earth Scotland, which has led the campaign against fracking, strongly favour a full legislative ban. “Such a ban would be met with huge celebration and much relief,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.
“Given the strength of feeling against fracking in the country, and the First Minister’s well-documented scepticism about the industry, it’s hard to see how the Scottish Government could do anything other than announce an outright ban.”
Fracking was “bad for public health, pollutes the environment and damages the climate,” she argued. “We are looking to the Scottish Government to take the strongest stance possible and pass a law banning fracking for good.”
She added: “This will ensure the strongest protection for communities under threat from the industry, and send a clear message that no new frontiers of fossil fuels are acceptable in the context of the climate crisis.”
Another pressure on ministers is a bill to ban fracking being put forward by Scottish Labour. The party’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP, is promising to push forward the proposed legislation if the SNP ban is weak.
“Anything less than an outright ban of onshore fracking, in all its forms, would be a betrayal by the SNP Government of our climate change commitments, our communities and the job opportunities now and for future generations in clean, renewable energy,” she said.
“When the SNP Government finally make a statement, after so much delay, I will be looking for absolute clarity on how it will proceed to a total ban. Otherwise, I will continue with my Member’s Bill to ban onshore fracking.”
Communities opposed to fracking have come together under the banner of the Broad Alliance. News that ministers were planning an imminent announcement would be a “vindication” of their campaigning, said alliance chair Donald Campbell.
“Communities across Scotland will breathe a sigh of relief that their concerns have been heeded. We are confident that we have made an overwhelming case for a full legislative ban.”
He added: “Communities worked together to ensure their voices would be heard, as evidenced by over 60,000 responses to the consultation process.”
Fracking – hydraulically fracturing underground rocks to release pockets of shale gas – first reared its head in Scotland in 2011. It emerged that companies, most of which no longer exist, were looking at drilling sites in central and southwest Scotland.
The focus of their initial interest was extracting coalbed methane, a technology that doesn’t necessary involve fracking. But there were two fracking licences for sites near Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway.
Plans for coalbed methane exploitation at Airth near Falkirk ended up at a public inquiry in 2014. But as political and community opposition grew, Scottish energy minister, Fergus Ewing, announced a moratorium on fracking and coalbed methane in January 2015.
There was also a flurry of interest from oil tycoon, Algy Cluff, in setting fire to coal gas under the sea in the Firth of Forth. But this technology, known as underground coal gasification, was ruled out by the Scottish Government in October 2016 after an expert study
The company with the most to lose from a fracking ban is the Grangemouth petrochemical giant, Ineos, led by the fossil-fuel entrepreneur, Jim Ratcliffe. It now has most of the 28 licence applications for fracking around Grangemouth and across the central belt.
It recent months, though, the company has been focussing its efforts on its licences in the north of England. In Scotland it has made much of its “dragon ships” that are bringing ethane from fracking wells in Pennsylvania in the United States.
Ineos has repeatedly highlighted how much better it would be if it could get fracked gas from Scotland. There have also been veiled threats that the long term future of Grangemouth, which employs more than 1,300 people, could be thrown into doubt.
Ineos said that Scotland needs its own natural gas supply, as well as renewables. “The expert reports have made clear that the moratorium can be lifted immediately and we await the government’s decision in due course,” said a company spokesperson.
The industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), also argued that fracking should be allowed to go ahead. “There isn’t any reason to justify continuing with the moratorium,” said UKOOG’s chief executive, Ken Cronin.
“The industry believes the science is clear and regulation competent to deal with the safe roll out of the shale industry in Scotland. At present, there is no viable or affordable alternative to Scottish natural gas from shale other than importing significant quantities of gas.”
A fracking industry could also help meeting climate targets and keep people in jobs, he claimed. “We strongly believe that onshore exploration and production provides a significant economic opportunity for Scotland,” he added.
“Our conviction is underlined by the fact that 30 wells have been drilled in the last 20 years and gas has been produced in the central belt of Scotland. This has happened without incident – to the environment or to public health.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “Ministers are considering the evidence, including the results of the consultation, and will put their recommendation on the way forward to the Scottish Parliament for MSPs to vote on this important issue before the end of this calendar year.”
Fracking – short for hydraulic fracturing – is a method of drilling between one and three kilometres under the ground to extract tiny pockets of shale gas trapped in rock. Water, sand and chemicals would be pumped down wells and injected under pressure to fracture the rock and release the gas.
The technique is not new – it was used by the oil company BP to extract gas from a 1.3-kilometre well near Airdrie in 1964. But plans to deploy it on an industrial scale to tap gas under the densely populated central belt of Scotland are unprecedented.
The Grangemouth petrochemical giant, Ineos, has fracking licences for nine large areas around Falkirk, though they have been in suspended animation for most of the last three years. The Ferret revealed in December 2015 that there were also licence applications – some of which may involve other companies – for 19 further zones centred on Edinburgh and Glasgow, which remain similarly unresolved.
The risks of fracking are disputed. There is little doubt, based on the US experience, that there is the potential for serious harm to public health and the environment.
The Ferret has reported in depth on the impact of the industry in the US in May and July 2017, revealing health and environmental impacts. We have also highlighted studies links fracking to childhood cancer, worker illness and noise pollution.
The industry argues, though, that the risks can be properly managed and made acceptable by tough, independent regulation. Critics say regulation will not be able to ensure that fracking is safe.
The need for fracking is also controversial. The industry points out that 78 per cent of Scotland’s homes use gas and 75 per cent of the UK’s gas will come from outside the UK by 2035.
They say that fracked shale gas is the best way to ensure energy security. But their opponents point out that either by accident or design fracking could cause major climate pollution.
The Scottish Government’s climate advisers have warned that fracking on a significant scale was “not compatible” with targets to cut carbon emissions unless three tough tests were met.
The central scenario in the Scottish Government’s consultation report suggested that the industry could create 1,400 jobs and a £2.2 billion spend by 2062. But, as the government pointed out, this would only amount to 0.1 per cent of Scotland’s economic output.
Perhaps the key unknown is how much extractable shale gas there actually is under Scotland. A recent study by geologists at Edinburgh University concluded that there was only “minimal” potential for fracking.
Many possible sites are in densely populated areas, have low quality source rocks and complex geological histories, they pointed out. That meant that fracking was “likely to be too restricted to become an effective industry”.
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 1 October 2017.