A MORATORIUM on fracking in Scotland has been imposed by the Scottish Government amid growing concerns over the environmental and health implications.
Energy minister Fergus Ewing told MSPs yesterday that “no planning permission will granted” for fracking schemes to extract underground oil and gas while a series of government investigations are carried out to assess its effect.
The moratorium in Scotland comes two days after David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to fracking and MPs voted against a similar suspension of operations.
The UK government grants licences but ministers in Scotland can withhold consent through the planning system.
Petrochemical giant Ineos, which owns the Grangemouth refinery, has a £645 million plan to drill for shale. It warned earlier this week of dire consequences if it does not get government backing.
Mr Ewing told MSPs yesterday that a mass public consultation exercise will be undertaken to gauge Scottish public opinion on fracking.
Environmental regulations and planning guidance will also be tightened up, while a full public health assessment is to be carried out to address safety amid concerns that the process can cause earthquakes and contaminate groundwater supplies.
“Given the importance of this work, it would be inappropriate to allow any planning consents in the meantime,” Mr Ewing said yesterday.
“I am therefore announcing today a moratorium on the granting of planning consents for all unconventional oil and gas developments, including fracking.
“This moratorium will continue until such time as the work I have referred to today has been completed.”
Environment minister Aileen McLeod will now instruct environment watchdog Sepa that no new “controlled activity regulation” licences should be granted in relation to fracking. There are currently two applications in the planning system for Airth, near Falkirk, including a coalbed methane scheme involving up to 22 wells which attracted thousands of objections. They will now be put on hold.
Mr Ewing added: “The Scottish Government has taken a considered and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas and fracking.
“I have listened carefully to concerns raised by local communities and environmental campaigners. We have put in place robust environmental regulation, tougher planning rules and successfully opposed the UK government’s plans to end Scottish householders’ rights to object to drilling under their homes.
“We recognise that local communities are likely to bear the brunt of any unconventional oil and gas developments, particularly in terms of increased traffic and related emissions and noise impacts.
“These are issues that must be researched further.”
Last night, Ineos said it “understood the importance of consultation to assess the impact of unconventional oil and gas”. It went on: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to manage an evidence-based approach and the opportunity for Ineos to provide detailed information and expertise as part of this process.”
Mr Ewing’s announcement followed growing calls from Labour for the Scottish Government to use its existing powers to stop fracking in Scotland. There has also been a movement to end the controversial procedure UK-wide, with environmental campaigner Bianca Jagger leading a mass protest outside the Commons earlier this week.
MPs voted overwhelmingly against a moratorium on Monday after the Commons’ environmental audit committee called for an end to fracking until more is know about its potential impact.
A survey by the British Geological Society (BGS) last year found that Scotland’s Central Belt is sitting on billions of barrels of shale oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas which could provide enough gas alone to meet Scotland’s needs for the next half-century.
Ineos has bought majority shares in two licences covering the Grangemouth plant and Scotland’s midland valley. But these do not have planning permission, so will now be frozen after yesterday’s moratorium.
Earlier this week, Ineos director Tom Crotty warned that if Scotland fails to embrace shale then it could lead to a “collapse in manufacturing”.
Industry leaders also say that Scotland needs to produce more of its own oil and gas for economic and energy security, as North Sea reserves begin to run out in the coming decades.
Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) said: “Onshore gas and oil will benefit the Scottish economy, not only directly with jobs created through oil and gas extraction, but also indirectly, as oil and gas is a critical raw material for the chemicals industry at facilities such as Grangemouth.
“A whole range of experts including public health bodies in the UK, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management and the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have all concluded that any health and environmental risks can be managed in a well-regulated industry.”
Fracking for shale oil and gas is now widespread in the US, revolutionising the energy market and bringing petrol prices tumbling down as supply increases.
Labour leader Jim Murphy this week called on Nicola Sturgeon to set out a “triple lock” system to stop fracking in Scotland, with local referendums among the conditions. Labour has made clear it does not want fracking in Scotland before it happens elsewhere in the UK.
Labour energy spokesman Lewis Macdonald claimed yesterday that the Scottish Government’s moratorium does not “go nearly far enough”.
He added: “The SNP government had the chance today to confirm that no fracking will take place without the consent of the local communities affected, but failed to do this.”
Green MSP Alison Johnstone said yesterday: “A year ago, the First Minister said shale gas was an undoubted opportunity; today the energy minister announced a pause but asks us not to rule it out. It is clear that the sustained pressure we’ve been putting on the Scottish Government has paid off, but we do not intend to rest here.”
Environmental campaigners also cautiously welcomed the moratorium.
WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said: “While this rightly puts a hold on fracking for now, we hope the final decision will be to rule it out completely.”
But the move was branded a “backwards step” for the manufacturing and energy industry in Scotland by Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser.
“The Scottish Government needs to stop playing politics and start thinking about the long-term economic consequences,” he said.
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