Leaders: Remove risk to secure shale gas rewards

Jim Ratcliffe, centre, believes shale gas will transform the economics of the plant. Picture: AP

Jim Ratcliffe, centre, believes shale gas will transform the economics of the plant. Picture: AP

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For an uncertain and controversial investment in fracking, Jim Ratcliffe, the head of Grangemouth refinery owner Ineos, has put £640 million on the table – equivalent to three times the budget of Scottish Enterprise. It plans to use the gas as a raw material for its chemicals plants, including Grangemouth, which is currently running at a loss. Mr Ratcliffe believes shale gas will transform the economics of the plant and in recent months has been buying up rights to explore across hundreds of square miles of the Midland Valley around the site.

This investment proposal is by no means straightforward – nor should it be. While shale gas extraction is promoted as an important energy source, it has aroused considerable opposition from environmental organisations. Numerous anti-fracking groups have formed and protests have been staged over fears of earthquakes, water pollution and environmental damage.

Then there is the baggage associated with last year’s industrial dispute and the hardball manner in which management closed the plant: some in Scotland may be reluctant to do Mr Ratcliffe any favours. The questions over fracking are legitimate and serious, in particular the risk of water contamination and the geological hazards the process involves.

Mr Ratcliffe is confident that Ineos has the resources and skills to extract the gas safely and the vision to realise that everyone must share in the rewards. The announcement itself cannot but be seen as a major vote of confidence in the future of fracking here.

But thorough research is needed, in particular on the environmental effects, so that both the Scottish public and residents living nearby are assured that the risks have been explored and contingency procedures are in hand in the event of mishap.

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These risks need to be seen in the context of the very considerable benefits that fracking could bring to Scotland’s economy. Shale gas and oil have been an undisputed boon for the US. Cheaper energy has lowered production and distribution costs for businesses across America, helping it to power an economic upturn. Here in the UK, our economy struggles with substantially higher energy costs and a tax regime that accounts for more than 60 per cent of the price of petrol at the pump. Not only would successful fracking secure the future of Grangemouth but it would also be of considerable benefit to the wider economy.

Scotland by no means favours cheaper energy at any price. There is vociferous opposition to any expansion of nuclear power. Coal plants have been run down. And wind farm development has been dogged by protests. Yet everyone wants lower fuel bills and an end to fuel poverty.

Mr Ratcliffe’s plan has the potential to bring huge rewards, locally and nationally. It thus makes sense to proceed but with the firm proviso that safeguards are in place.

Time to get tough with these thugs

Shocking and deplorable are the only words to describe the figures on physical attacks and verbal abuse directed at Scottish ambulance staff. They are truly in the front line of public service and least deserving of the volume of abuse directed at them.

Attacks on ambulance staff have risen 50 per cent in the past five years. Assaults last year included six “aggravated assaults with intent to kill” using a firearm or knife. In more than 100 incidents, staff reported being “punched, kicked or spat at” by members of the public. As well as physical violence, ambulance workers were subjected to 136 verbal insults, with four reported incidents of “threatening to kill” a crew member or “torch a property”.

Many of these inexcusable assaults were fuelled by alcohol – further evidence, if any is needed, of a drink culture long overdue firm and sustained action.

There is little that can be done in the short term. The incidents typically occur in the evening when ambulance staff are called to help convey victims of assaults to hospital. Earlier this year, it was revealed more than 1,200 homes in Scotland have been branded “too dangerous” for crews to enter.

Heavy fines and imprisonment for serious assaults on staff might present the perpetrators with a sharp and painful period of sobriety in which to face up to the consequences of their actions. Certainly, the argument for a maximum sentence for anyone who assaults a member of the ambulance service looks unanswerable. And we also need to encourage more than we do a greater attitude of respect and gratitude for those who are called out to help others, whatever the risks to their own safety.

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