Consultation should not mean a ban by stealth
When announcing his moratorium on fracking in Scotland earlier this year energy minister Fergus Ewing said: “We should never close our minds to the potential opportunities of new technologies”.
He was right. Yesterday’s decision at the SNP conference not to push for an outright ban on new energy technologies was a victory for common sense. We would do well to remember exactly where we are at this point.
The unconventional method of fracking for shale gas has transformed the US economy and that in turn has impacted the world economy. The economic benefits for Scotland from shale oil are huge. But there has also been evidence of environmental damage and that has to be recognised.
Recently the Scottish government also brought in a moratorium to cover underground coal gasification (UCG) but it identified that this was a completely different technology that would need to be assessed separately. Cluff Natural Resources, which wants to begin UCG in the Forth area, say it would be worth £600 million and create more than 800 jobs. So there is a balance to be judged. The Scottish government has outlined in detail what it will be. Mr Ewing has undertaken to carry out a public consultation on unconventional oil and gas extraction, to commission a full public health impact assessment and to look at further tightening of environmental regulation.
That seems a robust set of tests and is a responsible way to go about it. That is how the risks will be quantified to see if the economic benefits are worth taking. But of course all that will take time and the government has said it will be spring 2017 before any decision is made. This led to accusations that the SNP was trying to kick the issue in to the long grass to after the 2016 Holyrood elections. It was also accused of trying to avoid a damaging debate showing splits in the party at its conference. Well that debate took place yesterday.
Jim Ratcliffe, chief executive of chemical company Ineos, the company seeking to benefit from fracking, has urged the Scottish government not to delay a decision on the technology for too long. That too needs to be heeded.
The debate that centres around fracking has been imbued with class struggle and pitched as the ordinary man against rapacious big business. It has also been seized as a key front in the battle against fossil fuel extraction on environmental grounds. The Scottish government is right to move past that and look at the evidence.
But it must fulfil that obligation in a timely manner. While it is true that the shale and the coal will still be there in 2017 and beyond the fact is that the companies willing to invest will not hang around forever and will move to where there is investment to be made.
Scotland has gone it own way on this, a different way from the rest of the UK and that is absolutely right for the devolved nation we are. But we also have to be looking out for the advantages Scotland could reap and those benefits might pass us by if there is too much intransigence. The way the government has approached this so far is completely right. It must stick to that and not allow political considerations to delay a decision. This moratorium must be just that, and not a ban by stealth.
Taking on a monster challenge
Culicoides Impunctatus already has a fearsome reputation among Scots and visitors to these shores, and the revelation that it bites like “a jigsaw power tool” will obviously fuel visions of a cloud of microscopic monsters à la Alien.
The many of us who have been victim to the midge will be in no doubt as to its viciousness, the only doubts seem to be how best to avoid its blood-sucking ways, with lotions, potions and complete body coverage including netting and tucking trousers into socks all contenders.
It is heartening to know that scientists like Dr James Logan put such time and effort into studying the midge and its ways looking for clues to lessen its impact on a soft-skinned, warm-blooded outdoor-curious species.
The fact that now we know they are on us for a minute before they bite, must, one would have thought, offer up some opportunity for denying them said bite. However nothing practical has yet emerged.
While it is true that many an outdoor adventure has been rendered less than perfect by concerted midge attack, they have not driven us humans away completely.
According to Visit Scotland the number of tourist trips to Scotland went up this year by 5.5 per cent on the same period in 2014. This year there has also seen a reported increase of tourists in the Highlands.
Perhaps we are missing a trick in not using the midge to encourage more tourists. With the increasing popularity of extreme sports as drivers of tourism, like surfing, windsurfing and mountain-biking, perhaps the knowledge that we have power-tool jawed insects might attract macho-types into attempting midge-swarm endurance feats. And so a new sport (and reality TV show) is born.