CIRCUMSTANCES are conspiring to ensure that in the next few months, the SNP will have to come off the fence and either decisively stop the unconventional gas industry north of the Border or admit that they are happy to let big companies like INEOS drill and frack significant parts of Scotland.
While the UK government has shamelessly courted the frackers, the Scottish Government has been more cautious. It has put in place tough new planning rules, objected to plans for Westminster to take away the right of people to say “no” to fracking under their homes, and promised new work looking into health impacts and gaps in environmental protection.
That’s all well and good, but unlike Ireland, the Netherlands and many others, they haven’t actually acted to stop unconventional gas extraction, despite having the powers to do so. This may come as a surprise to the SNP’s 60,000+ new members, many of whom were left with the impression from the referendum campaign that the SNP was outright opposed to shale gas fracking (and other forms of unconventional gas extraction).
In communities across Scotland groups are coming together to oppose unconventional gas. People’s concerns include health impacts, the risk to house prices and the climate change consequences of producing yet more fossil fuels. In crowded community centres around the country, people are asking why the SNP has not already stopped this dirty industry.
So far the SNP has talked a good game, but big plans from INEOS to frack across the Central Belt and proposals for the nightmare that is underground coal gasification under the Forth mean that ministers need to act soon, before the planning applications start piling up and the industry becomes unstoppable.
The only current application raised thousands of objections, went through a public inquiry and is about to land on ministers’ desks for a final yes or no in the coming weeks. So that’s a key test of what the SNP really thinks. Even if it turns this one down, many other communities would be left facing the prospect of similar long and difficult fights against big companies.
In a few weeks’ time, Westminster will get to vote on the UK Infrastructure Bill. SNP MPs have been good at opposing proposals to drill under people’s homes without asking permission, but this time there will undoubtedly be an amendment that goes much further, proposing a moratorium or ban on fracking. Whether our SNP MPs vote for it or abstain will be another key test of how far the party is really prepared to go. It would surprise many if they abstain, while a vote for a moratorium or ban leads to the logical conclusion that the SNP should put one in place in Scotland using existing planning and environmental powers.
The Smith Commission has proposed that Scotland should control the licensing of onshore oil and gas, but this is unlikely to actually happen until 2017. Meanwhile the UK government is due to announce new licences across the UK, including potentially tens of thousands of hectares of the most populated parts of our country. So Scotland will get these new powers long after all the important decisions about who gets to frack where have been made. This is another key challenge for the SNP, the only sensible response to which is to take action now.
All this pressure, in communities, over the imminent planning decision, the new licences and around the UK Infrastructure Bill, comes of course in the context of the general election. The SNP has appeared to be leading on this issue but UK Labour is beginning to get active.
On climate grounds alone it would be crazy to go after unconventional gas, but there are other excellent reasons for declaring a moratorium or ban right now – the forthcoming work on health impacts, the acknowledged gaps in the laws which are supposed to regulate the industry and the UK proposals to take away community rights to object. The SNP needs to live up to its own rhetoric, and stop unconventional gas in Scotland before it is too late.
• Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland