Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Issue with fracking/UCG debate

BIG business is skewing the debate on unconventional energy amid very real risks for Scots, writes, Andrew Eaton-Lewis.

Anti-fracking protesters in Falkirk last year. Picture: Michael Gillen

I am a father-of-three who lives in a small flat in Portobello and makes a modest living working for a festival. I am also an extremist, according to Andrew Nunn, chief operating officer of Cluff Natural Resources. Nunn seemed quite incensed last weekend following calls for Scotland’s moratorium on fracking to be extended to underground coal gasification (UCG), a process his company wants to introduce to the Forth.

Nunn branded community groups expressing concern about UCG as “increasingly extreme”, accusing us of spreading “an unwarranted sense of fear and unease” by focusing “on a small number of negative outcomes”.

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Nunn didn’t specify which outcomes. Perhaps he meant Queensland, Australia, where there have been three UCG trials. One, by Cougar Energy, was shut down by the government in 2013 after toxic chemicals were found in cattle near the company’s plant. Cougar Energy tried to sue for $34 million (£22m) compensation, but dropped the case and was eventually fined $75,000 for releasing benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, into groundwater. Another company, Linc Energy, was charged with environmental damage last April after a nine-month investigation. UCG has now been halted in Queensland.

The bigger picture is that UCG has “potentially disastrous implications for CO2 emissions and climate change”. Are these the words of an environmental extremist? No, I’m quoting BBC business reporter Richard Anderson.

UCG has had less attention than fracking, which the US Geological Survey says has caused earthquakes in Oklahoma, and which a Californian study says has left “off the chart” levels of cancer-causing chemicals in groundwater. Scotland is far from the only place to impose a moratorium on fracking. So have Wales, Germany and various parts of both the US (Los Angeles, New York, Washington State, Hawaii, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Denton in Texas among others) and Canada (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Couillard).

Understandably, Cluff Natural Resources is uncomfortable that the spotlight is now on it; Cluff has already failed to persuade Warwickshire County Council to grant it a UCG licence, on the grounds that the technology “remains largely untested”.

There is a particular unease in Scotland, and it is far from unwarranted. If energy companies like Cluff get their way, fracking, underground coal gasification and coal-bed methane extraction will all be rolled out across the Fife coast. That’s three different industrial techniques, all prompting distinct and significant safety concerns, all in one densely populated area where, according to VisitScotland, growth in tourism is “critical” to the economy – and where many homes are built on top of old mines.

This is a unique, untested ­scenario. And the industry would be expected to do its own monitoring.

Fracking, at least, is on hold pending further public consultation, but Nunn’s outburst suggests a fresh war of words is now under way, in which the pro-unconventional gas lobby may have more influential allies than ordinary families living near the Forth.

Last week, the Daily Record was happy to run, unchallenged, a claim from Dart Energy that the moratorium will lose Scotland £40m (for the other side of that story, visit On these pages a few weeks ago, former Labour minister Brian Wilson was slating the “irrationality” of the moratorium on fracking. “Some people regard it, a priori, as the new Devil incarnate,” he wrote, as if we were brandishing crucifixes rather than thousands of pages of alarming evidence from across the world. In The Scotsman last Monday, even Lesley Riddoch appeared to have been partly won over, suggesting a “pragmatic” way forward where councils could negotiate a share of the profits.

The idea that elected councillors should negotiate with private companies over a small profit share (like the per cent offered by Ineos to “homeowners, landowners and communities close to its wells”) from exploitation of a natural resource under public land says a lot about the terms on which this debate is being conducted. So does another comment by Nunn about the numerous groups who have raised safety concerns via petitions, letters to MSPs and public meetings. Nunn says these groups “have no democratic legitimacy and should not be allowed to dictate government policy”.

So, the concerns of thousands of people who live on the Forth, raising families and building communities there – a sincere, long-term investment in a place – have less democratic legitimacy than the short-term desires of a private energy company? The sense of entitlement implicit in that statement is breathtaking, but consistent with the tone of the British Government’s “all-out” push for unconventional gas. Last year, when 99 per cent of more than 40,000 respondents in a public consultation objected to changing trespass laws in order to frack under people’s homes without permission, the government pressed ahead anyway.

The recent infrastructure bill also removed the right of landowners even to be notified if fracking takes place under their land, and there is no provision for compensation. The same, amended bill will now allow fracking under national parks, despite a recent poll showing a clear majority of the British public is against this.

Will the moratorium force a rethink? My hope is that it’s a chance for a fresh debate about renewables, which Friends of the Earth says would create six times as many jobs as fracking. My fear is that private companies still think they can eventually just bully, bribe and manipulate us all into shutting up, and will now step up their efforts. The more ordinary people take part in the public consultation, the harder this will be for them.