Prior to the election, a number of people asked me to clarify my position on fracking, something I was happy to do. I first got involved in politics in the late seventies through campaigning against nuclear power and ever since I’ve been an advocate of renewable energy. So, I guess that even when I first discovered what the term “fracking” meant (and realising that it wasn’t the ubiquitous expletive from the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica – of which I am a fan) I felt in my water it was a bad thing.
But I spent a bit of time reading up on the subject as I didn’t want to be accused of making a kneejerk response to the debate. And the more I read the more I concluded my initial instincts were correct.
Fracking is an inherently dirty and dangerous technology. There are a range of unanswered questions about the effects of toxic chemicals - both those used in the extraction process and those released by it. It is one thing to do this in the deserts of Texas or Western Australia but quite another to drill in the densely populated areas of central Scotland.
There is every likelihood that the extraction process could breach the water table and allow the release of poisons into our water supply. The resultant geological disturbance could also cause earth tremors, underground collapse and subsidence in residential areas.
It is a highly capital intensive technology – attractive mainly to companies like INEOS anxious to extend the return on already committed huge investment.
Moreover, it is a short term and finite fix to our energy supply problem and extends our dwindling reliance on carbon fuels – with the resultant environmental and atmospheric pollution - rather than preparing for a major transition to renewable energy sources.
At the moment fracking is licensed by the UK government although it is proposed these powers will transfer to Scotland in 2017/18. Earlier in the year the SNP group at Westminster supported a moratorium on fracking in the UK but the government forced it through. I am pleased to say that in response to public concern the Scottish government has used its planning powers to put in place a moratorium on fracking whilst further research and public consultation are carried out. The government is now undertaking a full review of all of the scientific, environmental and energy supply factors involved with the technology and will report next year. I am hopeful that they will conclude that fracking should not be part of a future balanced energy policy for Scotland and that the drive to renewables should be intensified.
Another unconventional gas technology you may have heard about is Underground Coal Gasification or UCG. This process involves putting two pipes into the coal seam and pumping in high pressure air down one of the pipes. The coal is then burned to create a synthetic gas (syngas) which is extracted from the other pipe. Syngas can be used for electricity generation of making plastics. The Firth of Forth, offshore from Leith and Portobello, is one of the areas proposed for UCG development.
There are a range of scientific and environmental concerns about UCG which need explored. And of course the overall problem, as with fracking, is that this technology continues our reliance on fossil fuels at a time when we should be phasing them out. It is for these reasons that I made clear in my election campaign that I would not support the development of UCG.
It has also been mooted that UCG is a more environmentally friendly process than traditional coal and gas. But this would only be the case if it were able to utilise carbon capture storage – something which has never been done on a commercial scale. Without CCS the carbon footprint would be greater.
UCG will be carried out offshore, and so the licences do not fall under Scottish Government jurisdiction (The SNP has argued for powers over offshore development to be included in the new Scotland Act but the Tories have refused this as they have many other proposals). However, while the specific licences to carry out the process are controlled by Westminster, there are a substantial amount of licences they would need that would be under the direct supervision of the Scottish Government. These include licences from Marine Scotland and SEPA.
Moreover, unless UCG is to be undertaken from a floating platform (not likely) then onshore building would be required to drill out to sea and this would require planning permission. In my view this would be – de facto – covered by the intent of the moratorium. We won’t know until someone makes an application, and for the moment this doesn’t look likely as the companies involved have indicated they will wait until the Scottish Government clarifies its policy.
I am involved in the SNP Westminster Group on Fracking, and helped to organise a brief for MPs from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Medact amongst others. I have met with local campaign group Our Forth and also met with Algy Cluff himself to hear what he had to say.