The Scottish Government is in the process of consulting the public on unconventional oil and gas. I would encourage everyone to take part. If you have any concerns about fracking in Scotland then now is the time to voice them.
Long before I stood for election I was opposed to fracking so I thought it might be useful to share my answers to the consultation questions. These are my views – no doubt you will have your own. Even if you don’t agree with me I would encourage you to make your views heard.
1. What are your views on the potential social, community and health impacts of an oil and gas industry in Scotland ?
Negative impacts on communities living within close proximity of fracking wells include increased traffic, noise and light pollution, contamination of ground water and air pollution.
There are many studies which have taken place, particularly the public health review undertaken by the New York State Department of Health, that indicate those living near fracking wells are at a significantly higher risk of health problems associated with chemicals and toxins. The chemicals that are used in the process, those that naturally occur in shale rock and are released during the process, and higher levels of air pollution caused by the increase in traffic around, and machinery on, the site all create a significant risk to health.
A study conducted by New York State’s Department of Health found symptoms reported by residents living near gas drilling sites included skin rashes, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties, coughs, nosebleeds, anxiety and stress, headaches, dizziness, eye and throat irritation.
High levels of endocrine disruptors have been documented in air and water around fracking sites. Exposure to these is linked to sperm abnormalities, reduced foetal growth, cardiovascular disease, respiratory dysfunction and asthma.
A number of studies have documented adverse health outcomes for babies born to mothers living nearby to well pads, these include low birth weights, congenital heart defects and even a rise in infant mortality.
Estimates put well failure on newly drilled wells at between 5-9%, and at upwards of 50% during their lifespan. The waste ‘flowback fluid’ contains both substances introduced during drilling and fracking and toxins naturally occurring in the ground, including carcinogens and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). These wastes must be treated and disposed of extremely carefully to avoid environmental pollution and human exposure. But toxic chemicals used or mobilised by the drilling and fracking processes can contaminate nearby soils and groundwater if wells leak.
Although there may be steps that can be taken to reduce the risks to health I do not believe we are able to mitigate them altogether. And these risks could potentially have devastating effects on the health of communities living nearby to well pads.
2. What are your views on the community benefit schemes that could apply, were an unconventional oil and gas industry to be developed in Scotland?
Undoubtedly if money is given to communities, then communities would be able to put that money to good use. However, I don’t believe that important considerations such as air quality, water pollution, public health and seismic activity can be easily traded off against any sum of money.
And considering the economics it is likely to be a very small amount that gets invested in community benefit - for a very limited period of time.
If any of the long list of things that could go wrong do go wrong, the environmental repercussions are something we will have to live with for a long time to come.
3. What are your views on the potential impact of unconventional oil and gas industry on Scotland’s economy and manufacturing sector?
Because of the population density in the area where most of Scotland’s shale gas is concentrated, extraction is much more complicated and is therefore likely to be much more expensive than fracking for example in much less densely populated areas of America. It is unclear whether or not it is commercially viable at all. Even if it is, profit margins are likely to be minimal.
My big concern is that the number of skilled jobs created by shale gas extraction are likely to be minimal, and time limited. I fear we would be directing resources and skills away from renewables at a time that we desperately need to be investing in them for the future.
Everyone agrees that renewables are our long term solution to energy production. Any investment directed away from renewables will ultimately set us back when we need to focus on making renewables a viable, low cost and permanent alternative to fossil fuels.
Workers who today become equipped with the skills needed for the renewables industry will have jobs for life. Workers who have the skills needed for the unconventional oil and gas industry will be lucky to have jobs for a decade.
We know that the price of oil and gas is unpredictable and investing in UCOG now means we are creating future uncertainty for our economy. We would also be investing in infrastructure that we are already planning on making redundant because our aim is for 100% of our energy to come from renewables in the near future.
4. What are your views on the potential role of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland’s energy mix?
I believe that we should be focusing all of our resources on increasing the proportion of renewables in our energy mix.
Licensing UCOG will draw a considerable amount of resources away from renewables while companies and investors put money into setting up an infrastructure for UCOG.
Employment is not likely to be that high for UCOG, but those that do move into the industry will be becoming equipped with skills for an industry that has a 10-15 year lifespan, instead of becoming skilled workers in an industry which will be needed well into the future.
The carbon emissions for UCOG are much too high, and partly unknown as we do not know for certain the make-up of the oil and gas that is likely to be extracted. We also don’t know how much of this will be used for energy and how much will be used for the petrochemical industry so determining the effect on our oil and gas mix now will always involve an element of guess work.
I struggle to see how introducing UCOG to our energy mix can have more than a minimally positive impact and one that is very high in uncertainty and risk factors.
5. What are your views on the potential environmental impacts of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?
I have a huge number of concerns about the environmental impact of UCOG in Scotland. The increased emissions from the extraction process, as well as the machinery used in the process, would undoubtedly be bad for the environment and have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of those living nearby extraction sites.
The impact on air quality is one factor but there are other risks which must also be considered. There is a risk that a small proportion of wells may fail and that leaks may occur. While I can understand a mind-set where monitoring for leaks and taking mitigating action may be acceptable for a well in an unpopulated area, our shale gas is all located in the central belt. This is our most populated part of the country and where we produce most of our food. My belief is that any risk from well-leakage is unacceptable, especially where it may affect the soil, water or air quality of a densely populated part of our country.
The risks from seismic activity may well be low, but they are (or change risks to risk) still there. While the consensus seems to be that seismic activity is linked to waste water being disposed of into wells, there is not conclusive evidence that this is the case. Again I come back to these activities being undertaken in our most densely populated region, and a sense that we do not possess all of the facts and therefore are not able to mitigate these risks completely. For me any risk at all is far too great.
6. What are your views on the potential climate change impacts of unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?
The Scottish Government have been very successful at bringing down carbon emissions. Introducing a new method of production which will add to emissions is counterproductive and will not help us to achieve those aims. That methane is likely to be a component of unintentional leaks is a great cause of concern.
The Committee on Climate Change’s assessment is that UCOG is not compatible with Scotland’s climate change targets unless certain mitigating actions are taken. One of these is offsetting UCOG emissions from elsewhere in the Scottish economy. However, it also notes that this will be difficult because of the high level of ambition with which the Scottish Government have set their targets. That we could find extra reductions elsewhere that can be used to offset any increase, whilst meeting the Scottish Government’s reduction targets, is frankly implausible.
Q7. What are your views on the regulatory framework that would apply to an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?
It is clear that our regulatory framework is not currently in a state where it could effectively regulate a Scottish UCOG Industry . It has been identified by the Independent Expert Scientific Panel that some air emission may not be fully regulated as things stand. No doubt there are steps which could be taken to strengthen the framework, but I have concerns that it would not be up to speed in time to fully and robustly regulate an industry around which there are considerable environmental concerns.
Shale gas does release less carbon than coal when burnt but it is widely recognised that it may be worse for the environment because of the fugitive emissions of methane released during the fracking process. Fugitive emissions are very difficult to monitor so there is not conclusive evidence of how high these may be. I would say our lack of knowledge in this respect is cause for concern in itself.
The Scottish Government’s own paper acknowledges that fugitive emissions are not fully regulated for under the current arrangements. These are one of the most environmentally damaging aspects of UCOG and I would be highly concerned about a shale gas industry in Scotland without a robust and well tested regulatory framework in place.
8. Overall, and in light of the available evidence, what do you think would be the main benefits, if any, of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?
There may be some small benefit from community payback schemes but I don’t see this as having a significant impact. We may increase energy production for a while but again I see this as marginal.
9. Overall, and in light of the available evidence, what do you think would be the main risks or challenges, if any, of an unconventional oil and gas industry in Scotland?
My biggest concerns are around the risks of pollution and leaks. These may be small but if realised could have considerable and wide ranging health impacts on local people and cause damage to our agricultural industry.
I also have concerns around the economics. I strongly believe all investment possible should be going into the infrastructure needed for a strong renewables sector and we should be focussing on getting a highly skilled workforce ready for that industry.
Finally I have concerns about increasing the reliance of Scotland’s economy on oil and gas.
You can take part in the consultation here.
Four weeks ago I was worried about writing this column on the eve of the last major parliamentary debate on Brexit. Anything could have happened, rendering my speculation obsolete by the time you read it. I shouldn’t have fretted. Anything could have happened but nothing did.
Here I am again. Groundhog day. It’s Tuesday. There’s a big debate tomorrow.
Tuesday. Another day spent discussing Brexit. Another day of my life I’m not getting back.
We are no further forward. As the clock ticks down to exit it’s only fair to ask: What the hell is Theresa May playing at?
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