Leader comment: Fracking decision must come soon

The Scottish government has banned gas extraction using the unconventional technique of Underground Coal Gasification
The Scottish government has banned gas extraction using the unconventional technique of Underground Coal Gasification
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No sooner had the Scottish Government moved to block underground coal gasification (UCG) than pressure was growing on ministers to make a decision on fracking.

Energy minister Paul Wheelhouse yesterday announced it would move towards a ban on UCG following an independent review by Professor Campbell Gemmell of Glasgow University.

The controversial technique involves pumping oxygen and steam through a small borehole into a coal seam to produce a small and controlled combustion. The resulting hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and CO2 are then extracted through a second borehole.

Despite being around since the 19th century, UCG has not been viable until recent technological advances.

Energy firm Cluff Natural Resources had been planning to use UCG to extract gas from under the Firth of Forth near Kincardine in Fife and had secured licences from the UK government’s Coal Authority.

But the Scottish Government said its independent review had identified serious environmental concerns.

Professor Gemmell’s report said it would appear logical “to progress toward a ban” due to a history of incidents involving pollution and risks of it impacting on greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Wheelhouse said the government’s position was “a clear validation of the evidence-based approach” it had taken on UCG. But just as the minister was making his statement in Holyrood, the UK government was giving the go-ahead for fracking at Little Plumpton in Lancashire.

Fracking, a process of drilling into the earth using high-pressured water to release gas, is different from UCG but no less controversial.

Despite already being big business in the United States and making tentative inroads south of the Border, there is currently a moratorium on fracking in Scotland.

A Scottish Government investigation into unconventional oil and gas, which includes fracking, is nearing completion and is due to be published “as soon as possible” after Holyrood’s autumn recess.

Scottish Labour yesterday sought to ramp up the pressure on the SNP over fracking, calling for a ban in light of the UCG decision.

The decision on UCG was clear cut – serious concerns were raised, leaving the Scottish Government little option but to act the way it did. But the situation regarding fracking is more complex.

While environmental campaigners have serious and justifiable concerns, there is a danger that a ban could see Scotland miss out on an industry which has the potential to be hugely profitable and create much-needed energy jobs and a much needed-addition to our energy mix.

Either way, the Scottish Government should make a decision. Mr Wheelhouse is right that it should be evidence-led. But this is not a process the government should allow to drag on for much longer.