for Sunday Herald, 17 August 2014
The UK government’s minister for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, is under fire for backing a “Tory raid on people’s property rights” to help fracking companies.
The Scottish energy minister, Fergus Ewing, is writing to Carmichael demanding that he distance himself from Westminster proposals to allow firms to frack for shale gas under land without asking the owner’s permission.
The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) last week completed a public consultation on fracking, a technique for extracting gas from deep underground by fracturing rocks. It wants to give developers easier access to reserves help kick-start fracking in the UK.
But the Scottish government has lodged an objection to the proposals, and accused UK ministers of pursuing a “gung-ho approach” to the exploitation of underground gas. Scottish ministers, however, have not ruled out allowing shale gas to be fracked north of the border.
Ewing is responding to an invitation on television from Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, to get in touch with any concerns. “This is a key test for Alastair Carmichael – will he back the Scottish government in supporting Scottish householders against this Tory raid on people’s property rights?” Ewing said.
“Carmichael must say whether or not he supports the removal of rights from people in Scotland with the specific purpose of enabling hydraulic fracturing to be conducted beneath people’s properties without their consent. Failure to oppose this will confirm that, so far as Scotland is concerned, the Lib Dems have become the travelling salesmen for the Conservatives.”
Ewing told the Sunday Herald that the way the UK government had approached the issue had added insult to injury. “Were it to proceed it would be a clear and brazen example of Westminster abrogating to itself matters that even under devolution should be decided in Scotland,” he said.
“Whatever your view on unconventional oil and gas, removing householders existing rights on this matter is not acceptable.” The Scottish government is not opposing fracking, saying that it requires an “evidence based, cautious and considered approach”.
Carmichael responded by reiterating his offer to have a sensible discussion. “This issue is part of things we are consulting on as a government and it is a conversation I am quite happy to have with Fergus Ewing or with any other Scottish minister,” he said.
“I’d suggest the best way to do it is to pick up the phone and we can discuss it sensibly, rather than issuing press releases like this which help no-one.”
DECC stressed that it was “keen” for fracking to proceed while protecting residents and the environment. “Our proposals would allow shale development to go ahead while offering a fair deal for communities,” said a DECC spokesman.
“Many other industries already access underground land beneath people’s homes, for example to lay water pipes and tunnels. These are much closer to the surface than the access concerned here. Shale gas and oil operations involve wells drilled around a mile down.”
Last month DECC launched the latest oil and gas licensing round, offering a 20,000 square kilometre swathe of central and southern Scotland up for bids from fracking companies. In June the British Geological Society estimated that there were 80 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the central belt around Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The fracking industry has made clear that it is interested in pursuing developments in Scotland. It would enhance energy security, increase tax revenues and provide domestic gas, according to Ken Cronin, the chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas.
But the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, wants a total ban on fracking. “Scottish ministers should continue to consider the use of existing regulations to ban unconventional gas completely,” he said.
“We are risking our economy, not just our environment, if we encourage yet more fossil fuel extraction. Many communities across Scotland remain deeply concerned at these unwanted, unnecessary developments.”