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Fracking no longer viable, says government advisor

A leading academic who was an advisor to the Scottish Government on fracking no longer believes that unconventional gas development is viable, saying it has been “fatally undermined” following an energy policy U-turn by the UK Government.

The Ferret can also reveal that Professor Paul Younger – who holds the Rankine Chair of Engineering at the University of Glasgow – has resigned as a director from a company that wants to practice underground coal gasification (UCG) in Scotland.

Professor Younger is an expert on systems, power and energy who was appointed to the Scottish Government’s expert panel on unconventional gas to advise on fracking.

He advocates unconventional gas as a source of energy but speaking to The Ferret after the UK government’s announcement regarding carbon capture and storage (CCS), he said the Conservative Party’s new position meant pursuing fracking and UCG would be pointless.

Last month the UK Government said it had cancelled a £1bn competition for CCS technology just six months before it was due to be awarded.

The decision led to Shell and Scottish Southern Energy cancelling a CCS project in Peterhead with the former saying it would now focus on other countries.

CCS traps carbon dioxide from coal and gas power plants and buries it underground so it cannot warm the climate, which, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is important to tackling climate change cost-effectively.

In response to the UK Government’s policy change, Professor Younger said: “I have always said that unconventional gas should only be considered an option provided we are making serious moves towards full-scale CCS.”

“Given the announcement my position is that the ethical platform for any perpetuation of fossil fuel use in the UK (or by others on our behalf) has been fatally undermined.”

“I do not support unconventional gas development without at least a reasonable hope of CCS becoming available in the foreseeable future, and the recent shock announcement by the Westminster government has effectively dashed all such hope.”

Critics of the unconventional gas industry said Professor Younger’s comments were extremely damaging for energy company INEOS which is vying to frack in Scotland.

Dr Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of The Earth Scotland, said: “The fracking industry have just had one of their most powerful allies turn into an enemy.”

“Professor Younger has been a staunch and vocal proponent of unconventional fossil fuels. His decision to withdraw this support is both very rational and very welcome.”

“Professor Younger turning against fracking and unconventional fossil fuels in general will be a huge blow to INEOS, Cluff and others in the industry, who have been actively courting academic voices to support their climate-trashing, dangerous proposals.”

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone, said: “Communities across the central belt remain at risk from UCG and other experimental forms of fossil fuel drilling, as the Scottish Government refuses to enforce a ban.”

“Professor Younger’s comments do not change that uncertainty, and companies such as Five Quarter still hold licenses in the Forth.”

“Professor Younger is right that UCG is fatally undermined, but it’s not from George Osborne pulling the plug on carbon capture, it’s from the growing scientific and economic consensus that says we need to leave this stuff in the ground.”

Joan McAlpine, SNP MSP for the South of Scotland, said: “I agree with experts who have said the cancellation of the Peterhead demonstrator is a disaster.”

“I support CCS as a way in which we can potentially store the carbon we already produce in great quantities, but not additional C02 produced by UCG, a really dangerous technology.”

“The syngas produced from UCG cannot be burned without producing extremely damaging levels of C02 (far greater than burning natural gas).”

“I have campaigned against Five Quarter’s UCG proposals on the Solway because of the environmental damage the technology has caused in Australia.”

“Thanks to The Ferret, we now know SEPA acknowledge UCG’s potential to damage watercourses, soil and the danger of uncontrollable underground fires.”

“I am pleased to hear that Paul Younger, whose academic position carries great responsibility, is no longer a director of this firm.”

Professor Younger, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, was on the Scottish Government’s expert panel that produced a 98-page report last July.

The panel concluded that fracking could deliver major economic benefits but added that the best reserves of shale gas in Scotland were in the most populated central belt areas.

Earlier this year, Professor Younger was critical of a decision in January by the Scottish Government to introduce a moratorium on fracking, saying the move was political posturing.

He said: “All of a sudden, out of the blue, we start hearing about gaps and further things they need to look into on environment and health. I tell you what – it’s all made up. It’s pretend.”

“This is completely feigned. It’s completely false and I just feel violated as a professional, having worked on that committee to suddenly be treated like a political football like this. It’s very, very degrading.”

Professor Younger was embroiled in controversy last year after wrote a piece in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology calling for more relaxed regulations on shale gas extraction.

He also wrote that the risks of serious earthquakes being caused were lower than previously feared.

At the time he was a non-executive (unpaid) director of Five-Quarter, a Newcastle University spin-off company that has licences to explore UCG in the Firth of Forth.

Professor Younger’s directorship led to allegations of a conflict of interests.

He denied this and insisted that his link to Five Quarter was irrelevant but he resigned from his position with the coal gas company on 25th June 2015.

Regarding his resignation, Professor Younger told The Ferret it was not a result of questions raised over his impartiality.

He said: “I resigned as part of a general move on my part to gradually withdraw from legacy activities from my time at Newcastle University, and this was one of them.”

“I had already resigned from various other positions that I had brought with me from Newcastle that were similarly no longer very central to my role here in Glasgow.”

“I certainly did not resign as the result of allegations of conflict of interest, as those allegations were false and irrelevant to the activities of Five-Quarter.”

“My involvement with Five-Quarter was declared to the Scottish Government before I joined the Expert Panel on Unconventional Gas – the remit of which explicitly excluded UCG –  and was made public on their website during the life of the panel (it might still be there for all I know).”

“As Five-Quarter never had anything to do with fracking, the Scottish government took the view that my involvement with the company was irrelevant.”

“As regards to Five-Quarter, they had no say in the matter in any case, as I was invited in my university capacity. I would just note, though, that growth of an onshore shale gas industry in Scotland would actually be detrimental to the economics of the offshore UCG-CCS concept that Five-Quarter have been developing over the years.”

Asked if his views on fracking had changed, Professor Younger added: “My view is that the moratorium has killed any prospects for unconventional gas developments of any sort in Scotland for the foreseeable future (i.e a timescale of several years at least, even if the moratorium were lifted tomorrow), and nobody is likely to be planning any serious investment here in that emerging sector.”

“The investment (and jobs) will go to England, Poland and other places. So my own views are irrelevant, as the sector has effectively been written off before it even started here.”

Five-Quarter describes its method of gas extraction as “clean and pioneering”.

It involves the drilling of narrow boreholes up to 2km below the seabed into which oxygen and steam are injected.

The company is looking at a location under the Firth and Forth and a site in Musselburgh but the Scottish Government is still to make a decision on UCG after announcing a moratorium in October.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The UK Government’s decision to scrap its £1 billion Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) programme will disrupt efforts to tackle climate change and will do nothing to help develop the much-needed new technologies necessary to cut emissions.”

“It is essential that a route to Contract for Difference (CfD’s) remains open to CCS developers going forward.”

“No fracking can or will take place while our moratorium remains in place. We have committed to carry out a wide-ranging research programme, followed by an extensive public consultation, which will allow all interested parties to express their views.”

Bill Frew, chair of the Broad Alliance, a coalition of communities across Scotland opposed to all unconventional gas extraction, said: “In light (a) of the Scottish Government’s claims that they are pursuing a ‘robust evidence-based approach’ to making a decision on UG, and ( b) of Prof Younger’s influential role in their own ‘Independent Expert Scientific Panel’, his clear admission that the technology is both ethically and technically unviable without CCS, another risky and unproven technology, should be music to the ears of Fergus Ewing and Nicola Sturgeon.”

“Prof Younger’s view that, in the absence of CCS, unconventional gas proposals are now ‘fatally undermined’  certainly accords with the views of communities across Scotland, who already believed that the available evidence of public health, environmental and climate change impacts is persuasive, and warrants an outright ban on extreme unconventional fossil fuel technologies.

“When even the Scottish Governments own independent scientific experts believe that the case for unconventional gas extraction is fatally undermined, Scottish Ministers should acknowledge that there is no need for further lengthy procrastination. We call on them to do the right thing without delay.”

INEOS declined to comment.

A version of this story was published in tandem with The Times as part of The Ferret’s commitment to collaborating with other media on public interest issues.

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