Senior Scottish ministers have held private meetings with the fracking firm Ineos and Grangemouth executives from China five times in 13 months, The Ferret can reveal.

Briefings released by the Scottish Government under freedom of information law show that in 2016 the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe and Chinese businessmen who are involved in helping to run the Grangemouth refinery.

The Deputy First Minister John Swinney and economy secretary Keith Brown also had high-level meetings with Ineos managers.

Exactly why the meetings took place has been kept secret. But it’s clear from the briefings that the government’s public consultation into the future of the fracking industry was on the agenda.

Critics have accused ministers of trying to placate Ineos concerns about a possible ban on fracking, and attacked the secrecy as “scandalous”. The Scottish Government, however, argued that it was right for ministers to meet with business leaders to discuss economic growth.

Ministers held a consultation on fracking and other unconventional gas extraction technologies from 31 January until 31 May 2017. They received 60,000 responses and promised a decision before the end of 2017.

Sturgeon met Ratcliffe at the Capital Hotel in London on 19th October 2016. According to a government briefing, one of her “key messages” was that “the Scottish Government wants a sustainable future for the petrochemical and refinery business at Grangemouth.”

Details of why the meeting took place and its purpose have been redacted. But in a section on fracking for underground shale gas, the briefing said: “The technology exists to allow the safe extraction of such reserves, subject to robust regulation being in place.”

The government was committed to reviewing planning and environmental regulation of the industry. “The robustness of the regulatory regime is vital to mitigating any risks,” said the briefing, adding: “and avoiding the types of environmental impacts that have emerged in North America.”

Sturgeon met with the chief executive of PetroChina International, Si Bingjun, and Grangemouth’s commercial manager, James Chwu, at Bute House in Edinburgh on 1 September 2016. PetroChina has a joint venture with Ineos to run the Grangemouth refinery.

A key message was that the “Scottish Government values PetroChina’s presence in Scotland and is keen to ensure that this continues”. But why the meeting took place is again redacted, and the briefing said: “This is a private meeting”.

The economy secretary Keith Brown made two visits to Grangemouth. On 6th October 2016 he met Bingjun, Chwu and the chief executive of Petroineos, Franck Demay and company’s refinery manager, Russell Mann.

Brown visited Grangemouth again on 30th March 2017 to meet Ineos director, Tom Crotty, and Ineos Olefins and Polymers chief executive, John McNally. The visit coincided with a debate and government statement on fracking in the Scottish Parliament.

But a decision was taken not to publicise the visit. “No proactive media planned,” said a ministerial briefing. “No social media planned.”

Brown was advised to encourage Ineos to respond to the fracking consultation.

The briefing said: “Our consultation is not simply an opinion poll – this would not do justice to the broad and complex range of issues that people care about and that need to be debated.”

Swinney also met Crotty and McNally at the Scottish Parliament on 25th February 2016. As with all the meetings, the section explaining why it took place has been redacted from the released briefing.

Some of the briefings were obtained by the Labour MSP, Neil Findlay. “The little that these documents do say suggests that ministers have been keen to reassure Ineos that everything will be OK on fracking,” he told The Ferret.

“That is deeply disturbing. What the government should be doing is permanently banning fracking now.”

Findlay also attacked ministers for keeping information secret. “This is a scandalous state of affairs,” he said. “The Scottish Government has been exposed as a government that goes out of its way to avoid scrutiny of its private chats with big business.”

Mark Ruskell MSP, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “It’s clearly a concern that the First Minister and her cabinet are having such frequent meetings with a leading proponent of fracking while the door remains ajar to this unwelcome industry.”

He added: “Judging by the briefings for these meetings, Ineos are being reassured that oil and gas has a bright future under the SNP, when any responsible analysis shows we have to start leaving fossil fuels in the ground.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that accusations that Ineos has suppressed trade union rights and lobbied against climate change measures, should have been on the agenda for ministers’ meetings.

“The timing of a number of these high-level meetings gives the distinct impression that their purpose was to soothe would-be frackers Ineos at key moments,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

Ineos pointed out that Ratcliffe had been a “champion” of British manufacturing in support of skilled British jobs. “He has often expressed his views openly on the importance of the sector to the UK economy as he has watched its rapid decline,” said a company spokesman.

“Given Ineos is the UK’s largest petrochemicals company, that has invested over £1 billion into Scotland, and Petroineos is Scotland’s only crude oil refinery, it is no surprise the company has met with government officials to highlight the importance of UK manufacturing, as half of the country’s manufacturing capacity has collapsed in less than a generation.”

The spokesman added: “Whereas this seismic shift in UK manufacturing may seem like a minor tremor in ‘services-rich’ London and many southern counties, it is a catastrophe in slow motion in many parts of the north of England, Wales and Scotland. Ineos has maintained a competitive business in Scotland as quality employment prospects elsewhere have degraded or disappeared.”

The Scottish Government stressed that people would rightly expect ministers to hold meetings with a range of business leaders and stakeholders to discuss economic growth in Scotland. “Details of ministerial engagements are published regularly,” said a government spokesperson.

“Grangemouth has significant economic and strategic importance to Scotland, and the Scottish Government wants to see a sustainable future for both the refinery and petrochemical business.  No decision on the future of unconventional oil and gas will be made before the Scottish Parliament has had the opportunity to vote on the matter, and we will do that in the timescale we have previously set out.”

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Photo thanks to Graeme Maclean licensed for reuse under CC by 2.0.