Bill Jamieson: We should think again about fracking '“ and here's why

There are some worrying signs for the long-term supply of energy in Scotland so it makes sense to reconsider fracking, writes Bill Jamieson.
Anti-fracking groups from around Scotland gather to demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: PA)Anti-fracking groups from around Scotland gather to demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: PA)
Anti-fracking groups from around Scotland gather to demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: PA)

Why waste your time? Such is the doubt that may have engulfed Jim Ratcliffe of Grangemouth-based Ineos in his efforts to develop shale fracking in Scotland.

It is the most controversial – and almost universally opposed – energy innovation in Scotland. At almost every turn, his ambition to undertake fracking has encountered a hail of opposition. Local communities and environmental lobbies have fought ferociously to have it outlawed. The Scottish Government declared a moratorium in 2015 and last October, backed by a vote of MSPs, effectively placed a ban on shale development.

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Now comes news that Ineos has launched a legal challenge. It is seeking a judicial review, citing “serious concerns” about the ban’s legitimacy. But what serious concerns could there be? The administration commissioned verdicts from experts in what it insisted was a “carefully considered approach”.

These consultations, said Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse, showed “overwhelming” opposition to fracking; the moratorium would continue “indefinitely”. SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green MSPs voted in favour of the effective ban.

The legal challenge has unleashed a fresh wave of denunciation. SNP MSP Angus MacDonald, whose Falkirk East constituency includes Grangemouth, described the legal action as “extremely disappointing”. Scottish Labour’s environment spokeswoman Claudia Beamish said Ineos was “out of step with the public and the Scottish parliament”. And Green MSP Mark Ruskell said Scotland “doesn’t want or need fracking and Ineos should accept they lost the democratic debate”.

No one should doubt there are serious health and environmental concerns about fracking, and the safety protocols and procedures surrounding site functioning and maintenance. Environmental concerns have been widely aired in the US. The risk is that potentially carcinogenic chemicals may escape and contaminate drinking water supplies. Given the environmental hazards, it was right that the Scottish government should mount a wide-ranging review. It commissioned six expert reports. The analysis and range of opinions could not be faulted.

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Ineos unveils legal challenge to Scottish fracking ban

But what did these reviews find? On decommissioning, a report by Aecom found that, based on international and UK experience, the risk of leakage from abandoned fracking wells was likely to be low provided best practice was implemented during well construction and abandonment operations. With appropriate regulatory oversight, it was considered that, with minor modification to licensing powers, Scotland’s regulatory framework was sufficiently robust to manage risks of well leakage.

A submission by the Committee on Climate Change concluded that in terms of potential implications for global emissions, the footprint of Scottish fracking, if tightly regulated, was likely to be broadly similar to that of imported gas. The initial evidence, it added, suggested that tightly regulated shale gas production was likely to have a broadly neutral impact on global emissions.

On the potential for seismic activity, British Geological Survey found that Scotland was characterised by low levels of earthquake activity and the risk of damaging earthquake was low. Hydraulic fracturing to recover hydrocarbons is generally accompanied by earthquakes that are too small to be felt.

Health Protection Scotland concluded that, overall, there was inadequate evidence available to draw conclusions on whether development of shale oil and gas or coal-bed methane would pose a risk to public health. The traffic assessment found that extra vehicle movements associated with onshore oil and gas resources were unlikely to be significant or detectable at a regional or national scale. Local communities would nevertheless experience an increase in traffic, potentially for a number of years. However, provided planning rules and environmental impact assessments were properly implemented, any significant problems would be avoided through the use of appropriate mitigation measures. Finally, an economic assessment impact by KPMG looked at a range of scenarios, the mid-range of which estimated that the development of 20 well pads of 15 wells each could produce a cumulative 947 billion cubic feet of gas and 17.8 million barrels of associated liquids over a lifecycle to the year 2062. This could lead to direct expenditure of £2.2 billion in Scotland over the period, which could give supply-chain benefits and other induced economic benefits of an additional £1.2bn and create up to 1,400 jobs at its peak. The report highlighted other potential economic considerations, including the use of gas as feedstock in the petrochemical industry and a mixed impact on house prices.

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However, questions persist as to whether Scotland’s recoverable shale reserves are substantial enough to be viable. From all these assessments, it is hard to conclude that fracking technology constitutes per se a significant proven risk to health and well-being. Nor is it clear from these contributions that proper regulatory and safety regimes could not be put in place to oversee fracking operations. But this does not remove what is arguably the unspoken but strongest objection: few want a fracking development in their neighbourhoods. And, on this perspective, MSPs look to have effectively endorsed the single greatest expression of nimbyism across central Scotland.

There are reckoned to be about 80 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Central Belt – modest compared to 1,300 trillion cubic feet in the north of England. But these reserves are found under east Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Midlothian, north Edinburgh, East Lothian and Fife, many of which include some of Scotland’s largest towns. Politically impossible, therefore? In the US, fracking has been developed on a massive scale, closely monitored by active and well-organised environmental groups. Yet today, as the Wall Street Journal calculated, at least 15.3 million Americans live within a mile of a well that has been drilled since 2000 – more people than live in Michigan or New York City.

On the basis of evidence so far, there would seem to be every justification for Ineos to seek a judicial review of the Scottish Government ban. As well it might, sceptics may argue, given that Ineos holds fracking exploration licences across 700 square miles of the country and has spent some £50 million already in assessment and exploration. But there are wider considerations. Business groups have been deeply unnerved by the ban, seeing it as a major blow to Scottish science and the engineering industry. “Don’t waste your time” is no signal to send for Scottish business. Equally worrying are the longer term implications for energy supply. The Scottish Government backed the closure of coal-fired power stations. It is opposed to nuclear development. Its highly expensive offshore wave energy projects have yielded little. Now comes a fracking ban to be enforced “indefinitely”.

That very word should sound an alarm bell for Scottish ministers. It is time for fresh light to be brought to bear, and for a judicial review to proceed.