Scott Macnab: Time to look at the facts on fracking

Political leaders must pay greater heed to hard scientific evidence on this powderkeg issue, writes Scott Macnab
Protesters outside Grangemouth oil refinary yesterday as the Ineos Insight gas carrier arrived with the first with shipment of shale gas.Protesters outside Grangemouth oil refinary yesterday as the Ineos Insight gas carrier arrived with the first with shipment of shale gas.
Protesters outside Grangemouth oil refinary yesterday as the Ineos Insight gas carrier arrived with the first with shipment of shale gas.

Almost three years ago Scotland was locked in one of the most bitter industrial stand-offs for a generation which left the livelihoods of thousands of workers hanging in the balance.

Grangemouth owners Ineos unveiled plans to close the petrochemical plant at the country’s biggest industrial site warning it could not stem annual £100 million losses without a radical rescue package which the workforce, facing reduced pay and conditions, had rejected.

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This eventually gave way to the harsh alternative of the dole queue and a deal was reached. But the crucial element to save this massive 1,700-acre complex, such a cornerstone of Scotland’s economy, was the mass shipment of fracked gas from the US.

As the supply of gas from the North Sea dwindles, these cheap new supplies from across the Atlantic are a Godsend for the future of Grangemouth. They are used to churn out the plastics which are used to make just about every household item you can think of from pens to yoghurt cartons, as well as astroturf and clothes.

That rescue package came full circle yesterday as the first of the specially-built ships arrived at Grangemouth with the long-awaited inaugural delivery of ethane gas.

But if it draws a final line under the industrial feuding, it also re-ignites questions over an issue which has prompted divisions in Scotland on a par with the independence debate: Should we allow fracking?

If we are allowing it to be shipped across the Atlantic to keep Grangemouth going and keep Scots in work, why aren’t we using the plentiful supplies already under our feet?

Scotland’s Central Belt alone is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of the stuff. A British Geological Survey (BGS) report a few years ago found this alone could provide enough gas to meet the country’s needs for the next half-century.

Firms like Ineos are keen to undertake drilling exploration to establish its commercial viability. Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe, in Scotland for yesterday’s arrival, has even suggested that as Scotland’s oil and gas industry falls into decline, it may be difficult for Scotland to seriously contemplate pushing for independence without fracking.

The economic potential is certainly debatable, but it’s clear that fracking has revolutionised the energy industry in the US. Prices have been brought tumbling down and even played a role in the current North Sea crash.

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The big Middle East oil super powers have flooded the market with oversupply to drive down the cost of oil and tackle the threat from the fledgling shale industry.

Fracking is, of course, effectively banned in Scotland with a moratorium having been imposed by Nicola Sturgeon after environmentalists raised concerns about the prospect of earth tremors and contamination of water supplies.

The technique, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, involves rocks up to a mile underground being “fractured” with high pressure water injection.

Shale gas then escapes and is piped back up to the surface. An independent panel of scientific experts tasked by the Scottish Government with looking into fracking found that the practice could be conducted safely in Scotland.

One of the members, Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University, was scathing in his assessment of the ban, insisting ministers had completely ignored the evidence laid out before them. Ministers have instead called for more research to be carried out while Ms Sturgeon told MSPs last year she was “highly sceptical” about the prospect of fracking ever being allowed in Scotland. This was music to the ears of the vocal environmental lobby, and even to many political opponents. The UK Labour party this week adopted the stance taken by the Scottish party going into the Holyrood election earlier this year, who demanded an outright ban on fracking.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, such an outspoken critic of centralisation, decided to disregard the democratic will of his party members who called for the moratorium to be overturned after a vote on the issue at their conference earlier this year.

It has prompted widespread claims of hypocrisy on the part of not just the SNP but the wider political establishment in Scotland. It’s not just that they’re happy to use fracking imports, but also the fact that the fracking technique is widespread in the North Sea oil and gas industry. How does this square with their stated desire to move to “decarbonise” energy supplies? Only the Greens, who have been honest enough to call for a move away from North Sea oil production, seem to be coming at this from a position of hard political conviction.

Just this week a new report has warned that about 120,000 jobs have been lost from the North Sea oil and gas industry in the past two years and exploration for new fields has sunk to an all-time low.

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There are already fears that the situation in Aberdeen has reached a tipping point where the vital jobs and skills being lost to the industry may never be replaced.

Can Scotland really afford to be so dismissive about the possibilities which the shale gas industry may provide, especially in the absence of any hard scientific evidence?

A different approach has been adopted by the UK government at Westminster. Former prime minister David Cameron said more than two years ago that the UK is going “all out for shale” and ministers one year ago promised they would “fast track” bids.

Ineos are now pushing ahead new projects after securing licences in July.

The need to balance environmental concerns against the wider economic interest is always a delicate one.

But the absence of hard scientific evidence about any dangers of fracking makes you wonder if our political establishment is simply bowing to pressure from the environmental lobby, instead of undertaking a hard assessment of the facts.

Fracking has, bizarrely, almost taken on the status of a moral issue, when it certainly isn’t. It’s a matter of economics and energy policy – as dwindling oil reserves and ageing nuclear plants mean Scotland is increasingly becoming a net importer of energy.

A more honest approach to the fracking debate is needed.