The Scottish Government has extended a licence for fracking across the central belt by the Grangemouth company, Ineos – but insisted it is still opposed to fracking.

Ministers have decided to renew for a year an onshore petroleum exploration and development licence, known as PEDL 162, covering 400 square kilometres to the south and west of Falkirk. The licence, which was previously granted and renewed by the UK government, is 80 per cent owned by Ineos.

The move has disappointed community and environmental groups, who – backed by three Scottish National Party (SNP) politicians – had asked ministers not to renew PEDL 162. Scottish Labour has condemned SNP policy on fracking as “a complete shambles” and demanded an urgent review.

PEDL 162, which licenses fracking for underground shale gas and other technologies, was originally granted by Westminster to a firm called Reach Coal Seam Gas in 2008. Ineos bought four-fifths of the licence in 2014.

The licence was renewed by the UK government to last until 30 June 2018. Another adjacent licence, PEDL 133, which covers an area to the north of Falkirk around the Firth of Forth, is also owned by Ineos and is anticipated by the UK Oil and Gas Authority to last until 2035.

Powers over oil and gas licensing were devolved to Holyrood and came into force in February 2018. This meant that Scottish ministers had to determine what to do about PEDL 162.

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Scotland's fracking licences

At the same time they were embroiled in a fierce court battle with Ineos over their “effective ban” on fracking. The court threw out a multi-million damages claim from the company, but concluded that the Scottish Government had not banned fracking.

Twenty central belt community councils and other residents’ groups wrote to the energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, on 28 June asking him not to renew PEDL 162. “This would protect Scottish communities from the potential risks associated with this industry,” they argued.

Three Falkirk SNP representatives – Angus MacDonald MSP, Martyn Day MP and John McNally MP – also wrote to Wheelhouse on 22 June. “On behalf of the majority of our constituents, we would strongly urge you to refrain from renewing PEDL 162,” they said.

60,000 people across Scotland said no to fracking and there is no social licence for it. Now only a legal ban will do. Donald Campbell, Broad Alliance

But the Scottish Government has now rejected all these pleas, and opted to renew PEDL 162 for 12 months from 1 July. “The extension of the licence maintains the existing position that we do not support the development of unconventional oil and gas while the statutory assessments on this preferred policy are undertaken,” a government spokeswoman told The Ferret.

“A statutory strategic environmental assessment needs to be undertaken prior to finalising the Scottish Government’s preferred position, and this will also be accompanied by a business regulatory impact assessment.”

Both these assessment were currently in preparation, she said. “Given these assessments are ongoing, an extension has been agreed to the initial term of PEDL 162 for a period of 12 months.”

She added: “In the meantime, it is important to stress that no local authority can grant planning permission for any proposed fracking or coal bed methane project. Scottish ministers would defer any decision on any planning application that did come forward until the policymaking process on our preferred position is completed.

“The practical effect of the current moratorium, and the policymaking process which is underway to finalise our position, is that no fracking can take place in Scotland at this time.”

In a letter to community councils, the Scottish Government said it expected the fracking assessments to be completed and considered “by the end of this calendar year”.

The minister is keen that it is made clear that the Scottish Government’s position remains unchanged. Scottish Government

The letter added: “The Scottish Government’s preferred position is not to support unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland. The minister is keen that it is made clear that the Scottish Government’s position remains unchanged.”

The Broad Alliance of community groups opposed to fracking accused ministers of being “clearly scared” of Ineos and its lawyers. “We don’t like this decision but what can we do, as communities?” said alliance chair, Donald Campbell.

“60,000 people across Scotland said no to fracking and there is no social licence for it. Now only a legal ban will do,” he argued.

“So let’s get on with the processes leading to that, and hope the Scottish Government has the courage to see it through, as the Welsh and Irish governments have. If they ban fracking they will have massive support – and face massive opposition if they don’t.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland described the decision to renew PEDL 162 as “disappointing”, given widespread public opposition. “This license should have been revoked,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“While it is unlikely that the operators will be able to do much in terms of advancing their shale gas ambitions in 12 months, it is an uncomfortable position for the Scottish Government to take given its opposition to fracking.”

She added: “Extending this licence risks adding to the confusion caused by Ineos’s recent legal challenge, and only increases the pressure on the Scottish Government to move forward with its decision-making process, legislate to ban fracking and draw a line under this issue for good.”

Court rejects Ineos bid for multi-million pound damages over ‘fracking ban’

Scottish Labour thought the government move’s was “deeply concerning”. It was “unacceptable” and sent the wrong message to concerned communities, said the party’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP.

“The SNP’s position on fracking has been exposed as a complete shambles – firstly claiming it was banned before having to quickly backtrack in the courts.”

She added: “The uncertainty has gone on for far too long – Scotland doesn’t need or want another fossil fuel and – for our planet and for our people – this decision should be urgently reviewed.”

The Scottish Greens called on ministers to implement a legal ban on fracking in the next 12 months. “Understandably, communities throughout Scotland will remain anxious at the government’s decision,” said the party’s energy spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“They need to get all the elements of a legally watertight ban aligned, starting with the environmental assessment. A temporary moratorium is not legally defensible indefinitely and it would be unacceptable for the licences to be continually extended.”

Ineos has not responded to a request for comment.

Photo thanks to Friends of the Earth Scotland, and map thanks to Frackwatch.