Energy minister Paul Wheelhouse says allowing unconventional extraction of coal and gas would put climate goals at risk
The Scottish government has banned fracking after a consultation found overwhelming public opposition and little economic justification for the industry.
Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish energy minister, told MSPs that allowing fracking would undermine the government’s ambitions to deeply cut Scotland’s climate emissions, and would lead to unjustifiable environmental damage.
Although Scotland needs natural gas for heating and its chemical industries, economists with KPMG had estimated that allowing unconventional coal and gas extraction to take place would only increase Scotland’s GDP by about 0.1%, but cause environmental ruin in areas where it took place.
A public consultation on fracking policy attracted more than 65,000 responses, with about 65% of those from communities in former coal mining areas of central Scotland targeted by the fracking industry. Of those, 99% of respondents opposed it, Wheelhouse said.
It would cause “long-lasting negative impacts on communities”, he said, damaging public health, the environment, and Scotland’s climate goals. A longstanding moratorium in Scotland on allowing planning permission would be made permanent, Wheelhouse added, until Holyrood was given the powers to control licensing of oil and gas exploration.
“We have a moral responsibility to tackle climate change and an economic responsibility to prepare Scotland for new low carbon opportunities,” he told the Scottish parliament.
Mary Church, the head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “This is a victory for the environment and for local communities fighting fracking.
“This is a huge win for the anti-fracking movement, particularly for those on the frontline of this dirty industry here in Scotland, who have been working for a ban these last six years.”
Environment campaigners in England said the Scottish government decision, which mirrors a similar ban in Wales, left ministers in London entirely isolated as they continued to support fracking in England.
Rose Dickinson, of Friends of the Earth England and Wales, said: “With all our nearest neighbours having banned or halted fracking, our government is increasingly out on a limb in pursuing it in England. Will [the business secretary] Greg Clark now listen to the overwhelming evidence of the risks and refuse the final consent for fracking in Lancashire and Ryedale?”
Ineos, the privately-owned oil and gas firm which owns the Grangemouth oil refinery and its neighbouring petrochemicals plant, was furious. Tom Pickering, managing director of Ineos Shale, said it was a disastrous decision which would damage Scotland’s economy.
“Natural gas will be needed by Scotland for the foreseeable future and production from the North Sea continues to decline,” Pickering said. “This decision, which beggars belief, means gas becomes a cost for the Scottish economy instead of an ongoing source of income.
“It speaks volumes about Scottish leadership on the world stage and sends a clear and negative message to any future investors in Scotland. Expert reports have clearly stated that this technology can be applied safely and responsibly – but it will be England that reaps the benefits.”
Prof Stuart Haszeldine, an expert in carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, said the residents who took part in the consultation had clearly rejected the claims of a short-term economic gain from fracking.
“The consultation replies from citizens shows they are very clearly prepared to forgo the doubtful possibility of short-term financial gain for the longer-term benefits of moving to a cleaner economy and air quality,” Haszeldine said. “This is continuing the decline of fossil fuels, and moving to a different sort of wealth.”
The decision follows nearly three years of delay by Scottish ministers, who were pushed by opposition MSPs and Scottish National party activists into announcing a moratorium on all test drilling for unconventional oil and gas sources in January 2015, despite intense pressure from industry and some SNP ministers to approve exploration.
Labour, the Greens and Liberal Democrats narrowly won a Holyrood vote for a full ban on fracking in June 2016 in a non-binding vote on which SNP MSPs abstained. Claudia Beamish, a Labour MSP, meanwhile published a draft member’s bill calling for a statutory ban late last year.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, and other senior ministers meanwhile held a series of private meetings with industry executives, including from Ineosand its Chinese government-backed partners PetroChina. Jim Ratcliffe, the founder of Ineos, warned that without shale gas imports, the Grangemouth chemicals plant would close.
In an effort to placate the industry, Wheelhouse told MSPs the Scottish government recognised that natural gas was essential to the country’s energy supply and that other liquids such as ethane were crucial to the plastics and chemicals industry.
Even though the industry would work to the tightest standards, he added, the overwhelming hostility to it meant there was no “social licence” for fracking.
“It is our responsibility as a government to make a decision we believe is in the best interests of the people of this country as a whole,” he said. “We must be confident that the choices we make will not compromise health and safety or damage the environment in which we live.”
The Scottish government decision will be put to a vote later this year, which it is expected to win comfortably. The Scottish Conservatives said the decision was a serious mistake, since it would deprive the country of much needed economic investment. The SNP was also guilty of hypocrisy, they said, given its worries about the downturn in North Sea oil and gas.
Dean Lockhart, the Tories’ energy spokesman, said it would create thousands of high value jobs and add £4.6bn to the country’s economy – a figure disputed by Wheelhouse.
“This much needed economic boost and jobs will now be created outside Scotland thanks to the Scottish National party,” Lockhart said.