A deeper look at Scotland’s recent decision to ban the controversial shale gas extraction
In October, the Scottish government announced that a ban on fracking would be extended ‘indefinitely’. The decision comes after a four-month public consultation showed overwhelming opposition to the fracking process, which involves injecting underground boreholes with high-pressure mixtures of water and rock to release shale gas.
Because Scotland still relies heavily on oil and gas to heat homes and power industries, it is clear that the decision is not solely about energy. Geographical consulted four energy and environmental experts, to discuss how Scotland’s stance on fracking is wrapped up in independence politics, concerns about climate change, and differing visions of the country’s future.
Fracking and the experts
Professor Stuart Haszeldine, geologist at the University of Edinburgh and member of Independent Expert Scientific Panel for unconventional oil and gas in Scotland
There is a clear battle of confidence between public perception of science and big business and big government. This can understandably focus on questions not included in an ‘expert report’. How are surface spillages contained? How will fugitive emissions of methane during drilling and exploitation be contained? Can a guarantee be given that there are no adverse health impacts? How many truck movements will there be? Can you tell us where the drilling pads will be and how many are planned? Will earthquakes occur?
It is not possible to answer 100 per cent yes to all such questions, based on available scientific evidence. So in the propaganda war, simple science lost. Understandably, other factors were given precedence by residents. No local ownership; minimal local employment; potential for disruption at the surface by trucks, pipes or people; fear of air and water contamination; alliance with a trajectory towards carbon-free renewable energy, not resurrecting the past, and deep suspicion of the motives and competence of the industrial actors and developers.
The job of a politician is to consider the expert science and to consider all the other lines of expert evidence influencing the activity. And a very clear view was communicated to Scottish elected politicians that, for fracking, the fears and uncertainty of possible risks greatly outweighed the alleged benefits of additional national wealth at remote distance, the few additional impermanent local jobs, and the contradiction to Scotland’s low carbon and green ambitions.
A lost opportunity?
Ken Cronin is the chief executive of the United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas, the representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry
We believe that the Scottish government’s ban disregards the evidence, both on the impacts of onshore oil and gas exploration, and on the need for gas in Scotland’s energy mix for a considerable time to come. And in doing so, it weakens Scotland’s reputation for leading the world in scientific understanding.
Without exploring and understanding what is beneath our feet we will not know what we have. Scottish engineers and academics have excelled in the fields of extraction not only in our country but across the world for many decades.
In choosing to ban domestic onshore exploration, the Scottish government is therefore choosing to favour imported gas over domestic gas, turning its back on a potential 3,000 jobs and £6.5billion of economic benefit, all without any public subsidy. The reality is it’s better for the planet to be producing our gas here rather than shipping it in across oceans from countries with poor environmental and human rights standards, especially when Scotland has a petrochemicals industry that is so reliant on natural gas.
Today in Scotland, there are nearly two million homes and over 22,000 commercial businesses that are connected to gas, 78 per cent of domestic heating is provided by gas and 43 per cent of all gas consumed is by industry.
By using the natural gas we have just a mile under our feet, we can ensure that the British public have the means to heat our homes, cook our food, and supply our industries dependent on gas for the coming decades.
A sustainable future
Keith Baker is a research associate in sustainable urban environments at Glasgow Caledonian University
The Scottish government’s ban on fracking is a relatively small step forward in its energy policy, but a very significant one. With recent research indicating that the likelihood that only around two per cent of potential reserves would be economically feasible to extract, the benefits of fracking to the Scottish economy would’ve been minimal, and the risks to other sectors of the economy would’ve been wide-ranging and substantial. The greatest of these being to groundwater contamination, which could severely impact on communities, tourism, and the whisky industry, as well as on Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in the fight against climate change.
Furthermore, fracking, unlike renewables and (non-nuclear) low-carbon energy generation, has no co-benefits to society. Compare that to investing in technologies such as solar thermal and district heating, which can provide low cost heating to poorer communities, and to investing in exploiting Scotland’s surfeit of wind and wave potential to provide cheap zero-carbon electricity to all. However, now the Scottish government has ruled out allowing unconventional extraction, if it is to meet its ambitious climate change targets the next step must be even braver. The evidence is saying that a complete ban on coal must be in place before 2025, and by then we must be well down the path of managing the decline of all fossil fuel use. Scotland has said no to fracking, now it must say goodbye to fossil fuels.
A political decision
Hannes Stephan is a lecturer on environmental politics and policy at the University of Stirling
When unconventional gas appeared on the political agenda in Scotland in 2012, it was a relatively low-key issue and was going to be covered by a reformed planning system. Increasing politicisation prompted the moratorium in January 2015 and the indefinite ban, announced in September 2017. These latter two decisions are closely linked to the Scottish independence referendum. In the last few months before the vote, politicians from the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) frequently contrasted Scotland’s evidence-based and cautious approach to shale gas to the UK government’s ‘gung-ho’ decision-making. The potential risks of shale gas were touted as one more reason to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum.
The SNP leadership did not foresee that anti-shale sentiment would keep gathering momentum after the referendum. A groundswell of opposition within the SNP itself (and backed up by Scottish Labour, Lib Dems, and the Greens) led to the old battle cry of ‘Scotland’s oil’ being extended to Scotland’s land, air and water. In a 2016 poll, SNP voters emerged as by far the most sceptical about shale gas among the three major parties.
By combining scepticism about shale gas with its familiar anti-Westminster narrative, the SNP helped to trigger a formidable momentum that compelled the government to adopt an increasingly precautionary approach. Whether the ban on shale gas would still apply in an independent – and potentially cash-strapped – Scotland remains a matter of speculation.
Some fear that, having set a precedent by banning shale gas, a similar reticence will scupper the chances of deploying vital energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage or geothermal. But others believe that rejecting shale gas will allow the government and private investors to focus on a radical agenda of decarbonising electricity generation, heat, transport, and agriculture.
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.