Brian Wilson: Holyrood’s fracking indecision

Protesters gather outside Lancashire Council, where a decision was due on two fracking sites. Picture: PA
Protesters gather outside Lancashire Council, where a decision was due on two fracking sites. Picture: PA
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MINISTERIAL mishandling of the fracking issue is short-changing Scotland’s economic future, writes Brian Wilson

From any perspective and regardless of opinion or prejudice, the implications of unconventional oil and gas are quite difficult to avoid or, indeed, subject to a moratorium of rational appraisal.

The United States has gone from being the world’s biggest importer of oil and gas to near self-sufficiency. Its manufacturing has undergone a wholly unexpected revival with companies flocking onshore because of cheap energy.

Now the Saudis are upset by competition and the price of petrol has plummeted. So too has investment in the North Sea. What was left of the UK coal industry has bitten the dust because of cheap imports. And so, extensively, on.

Wherever one looks, these technologies are prompting all sorts of upheavals and challenges to assumptions – not least, the $113-a-barrel oil price around which the economic case for Scottish independence was constructed. “Go away, nasty unconventionals,” is scarcely an adequate response.

The world is not holding its breath to see what Scotland thinks about unconventional oil and gas. The only people who need to care one way or another are those of us who live here. And there are widely differing perspectives from which to address the subject.

Some people regard it, a priori, as the new Devil Incarnate. Others see potential for cheaper energy, lots of jobs, enhanced security of supply and a manufacturing revival. The twain are unlikely to meet. In the middle, most of us are open-minded towards the technology but want assurances about science and safeguards.

You might think, even in Scotland, that it should be possible to make progress around the latter formula. Instead, we have an indefinite moratorium which owes nothing to science and everything to an auction of political indignation – and, above all, to an obsession with doing things differently from the rest of the UK. In September 2013, the Scottish Government took the sensible step of commissioning a report by an “independent expert scientific panel”. We are blessed with outstanding expertise in this field, so membership was of the highest academic order. The report published last July was thorough, readable, balanced, authoritative. The Scottish Government seemed to agree.

“Although further exploratory drilling will be required,” it said, “Scotland’s geology suggests that there could be significant reserves of unconventional oil and gas – the greatest potential reserves are likely to be found in the Midland Valley of Scotland”. While positive about potential, the report was hedged with vital caveats.

It noted that “the high population density of those parts of Scotland most likely to host significant unconventional oil and gas resources would be a challenge for any form of re-industrialisation … there is a growing body of evidence that sustained and meaningful community engagement has beneficial outcomes for communities, operators and policy-makers”.

So far, so good. The Scottish Government had exactly what it asked for – a basis for policy-making. The scientific content was beyond reproach while the need for caution and consultation could not have been more clear. Here indeed was the measure against which actual proposals could be tested.

But that would have been far too logical a way to proceed. Scotland’s energy industries may be in freefall and tens of thousands of jobs at risk, but now our local authorities have been told that they must not consider planning applications for any of these technologies. The much-praised report of last year is now dismissed as inadequate by exactly the same people who praised it.

Small wonder that one of its authors, Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University, hit back at the irrationality of it all. There has not, he says, been “one scientific contradiction” of the report. No new information will emerge from a moratorium. The Scottish Government’s belated objections are “completely false and I just feel violated as a professional to suddenly be treated as a political football”.

Professor Younger has good reason to be indignant about how public debate is now conducted in Scotland. Last November, he contributed a robust article to the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology in which he and his co-author opined that restrictions on underground drilling are entirely disproportionate to its impacts.

He was attacked by Joan McAlpine MSP not for his scientific reasoning but because he is an unpaid director of a start-up company within his field of academic expertise. Ms McAlpine’s endeavours made Younger a target for the Nationalist cyber-pit as well as anti-frackers globally. One message suggested he should “kill yourself before we do it for you”.

Unsurprisingly, a man who was invited, unpaid, to advise the Scottish Government has concluded there are others more in need of his help. He’s a hero in Peru for bringing clean water to old mining communities. The son of a Geordie shipyard worker, he was given the freedom of Gateshead for his work in the north-east and globally. In Scotland, he gets death threats and his integrity besmirched.

It will be interesting to see how long the Scottish Government’s moratorium survives or the circumstances in which it collapses. If Ineos, owners of Grangemouth on which much of the Scottish economy depends, push hard enough to invest, will they be told to push off and go elsewhere? Or will rationality suddenly become a virtue?

Coal is gone. Nuclear is vetoed. Oil is in decline. Wave and tidal don’t work. Wind is intermittent. Gas comes from Russia. For the first time, Scotland is on the verge of becoming an importer of power rather than an exporter.

Should we not give a fair hearing to an indigenous energy industry, with a long Scottish pedigree, harnessing world-class Scottish engineering, supporting thousands of Scottish jobs and – to mention just one beneficial side-effect – extending the gas grid to areas where fuel poverty prevails?

If all that can be achieved, compatible with stringent safeguards which everyone agrees are necessary, why would we not explore such potential? A moratorium only delays an answer to that basic question.