A bitter behind-the-scenes row between two leading nationalists about exploiting onshore gas has resulted in a complaint to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
The south Scotland MSP, Joan McAlpine, has privately protested about the behaviour of the Scottish energy minister, Fergus Ewing, after he carpeted her for criticising the Duke of Buccleuch’s plans to mine coalbed methane at Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway.
Ewing’s undisguised support for developing underground gas was damaging the government’s credibility in communities across Scotland, McAlpine warned Sturgeon. Canonbie residents fear that they have been “sold out” in a “stitch-up” by the minister.
Opposition politicians have seized on the revelations, with the Greens suggesting that Ewing should be sacked. Ewing, however, has dismissed the criticisms as “without foundation”.
Political pressure on coalbed methane and fracking for shale gas is rising, with proposed moratoriums due to be put to a vote in the House of Commons on Monday. The Scottish government will also soon have to decide whether or not to give the go-ahead to a major application to extract coalbed methane at Airth, between Falkirk and Stirling.
Correspondence between Buccleuch, the largest private landowner in the UK, Ewing, McAlpine and Sturgeon has been passed to the Sunday Herald by concerned Canonbie residents. It reveals an escalating dispute between McAlpine, a parliamentary aide to Alex Salmond when he was First Minister and a former deputy editor of The Herald, and Ewing, son of the veteran Scottish nationalist, Winnie Ewing, and brother of the Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP, Annabelle Ewing.
The argument started back on 27 August 2013, when Buccleuch’s chief executive, John Glen, wrote to Ewing complaining about comments McAlpine had made at a meeting in Canonbie. She had been critical of Buccleuch’s role as a major landowner, and of its plan to exploit coalbed methane in the area with a gas company.
McAlpine had “unfortunately sought to introduce a political land reform dimension into an already delicate and sensitive debate which is not helpful," Glen told Ewing. He suggested a meeting with the minister and McAlpine to “discuss what further steps might be appropriate.”
McAlpine was then summoned to Ewing's office, where by her account she was told that Buccleuch “had been very helpful to the government and that industry needed cheap energy.”
Ewing’s office subsequently replied to Glen saying that the matter had been discussed with McAlpine. The minister agreed with Buccleuch that there was an “opportunity to create employment and economic development through unconventional activities within the Canonbie area.”
McAlpine then complained to Ewing. "I must confess I was surprised and disappointed to see you fully endorsing Buccleuch estate’s claim that their plans for unconventionals would create jobs and economic opportunities in the Canonbie area," she said. “As we discussed at our meeting there is no evidence that unconventional drilling will bring significant economic benefits to Canonbie.”
Ewing replied to McAlpine on 20 January 2014. “I was surprised and disappointed at some of the statements you have chosen to make," he said. “l hope you will agree that it is very important for land owners, industry, potential investors and the local community to engage and discuss the potential opportunities that any new development can bring to an area."
Further problems arose in November 2014 when McAlpine publicly attacked Paul Younger, an engineering professor at the University of Glasgow and Scottish government adviser, on his interests in unconventional gas development. He wrote angrily to McAlpine demanding an apology.
Younger pointed out that he had been asked by Ewing to serve as a member of the Scottish government's expert panel on unconventional gas, and had fully declared his interests. “If that was good enough for the responsible minister, Fergus Ewing," he wrote, "I fail to see why it is not good enough for you. Maybe we can discuss this together with Fergus?”
McAlpine refused to apologise. “I answer to my constituents, not Fergus Ewing," she told Younger. “Buccleuch previously made similar complaints to Fergus about my speaking up for my constituents. I will continue to put my constituents in Canonbie first and will not be intimidated by yourself, Buccleuch, or anyone else.”
Then on 20 November 2014 McAlpine wrote to Sturgeon expressing her “deep concern” about what had happened with Buccleuch, Ewing and Younger. Unconventional gas extraction was “causing uncertainty and alarm right across Scotland”, she said.
“The energy minister and his officials are directing policy in this area and regularly refer to unconventionals as an economic opportunity for Scotland. The environment minister appears to be excluded from decision-making,” McAlpine wrote.
“I think it is wrong that Buccleuch, the biggest landowner in the UK and a financial backer of the No campaign, have gained the impression that they can influence government in this way,” she argued. “It is damaging our credibility in communities affected by this and among environmentalists.”
McAlpine added: “I support my constituents’ view that we should use our control of planning policy to impose a moratorium on unconventionals – as is already the case in many other European countries.”
The correspondence appalled and angered Bill Frew, chair of Canonbie and District Residents Association. Along with his wife, Loraine, he runs a local bed and breakfast business - and they are both active SNP members.
“Communities like Canonbie and Falkirk may already have been sold out by the energy minister,” he told the Sunday Herald. “SNP statements about a cautious evidence-based approach are simply cheap platitudes.”
Frew was grateful for McAlpine’s support, but said there were “political machinations” behind the scenes and “deals being done behind our backs”. Ewing was so biased in favour of gas development, he alleged, that it was difficult to tell him apart from a Tory.
Exploiting the gas would harm tourism and agriculture, Frew argued. “You don’t need to be a cynic to consider the whole process as a stitch-up. We voted for an independent Scotland, but this is not the Scotland we voted for.”
According to the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, there was a contradiction within the SNP on unconventional gas. “If Ewing is aligning himself with wealthy landed interests imposing an unpopular and risky development on a community, that is outrageous behaviour for a minister,” he said.
“The SNP will finally have to come off the fence on unconventional gas when they rule soon on the proposal for coalbed methane drilling at Airth – and if coming off the fence also means dropping Fergus Ewing from the job of energy minister, so much the better.”
Labour’s environment spokeswoman, Sarah Boyack MSP, described Ewing’s behaviour as shocking. “In public he talks about having a strong framework for decision making on fracking, yet in private he’s cosying up to vested interests,” she said.
Ewing’s spokeswoman, however, pointed out that there were concerns about the extraction of unconventional gas as well as opportunities. “In his correspondence Mr Ewing reflected that potential economic opportunities exist,” she said. “But he was also very clear that he believes in the importance of the views of local communities and that developments should only be pursued if consistent with environmental objectives.”
The minister has successfully campaigned for Scotland to be excluded from the UK government’s plans to remove householders’ rights to object to gas drilling under their homes. He has also asked the UK government not to issue any new fracking licences in Scotland, and is planning to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament this week.
Ewing’s spokeswoman added: “The Scottish government takes the issue of unconventional oil and gas very seriously and has implemented a serious of measures to strengthen regulation, including tougher planning rules including the introduction of buffer zones.”
Ewing’s backing for onshore gas was welcomed by the Conservative MEP for Scotland, Ian Duncan. “But he should have had the backbone to tell the Scottish people first,” he said. “It's shambolic his position had to be leaked to the press by his own party.”
Buccleuch declined to comment on private correspondence. The estate would continue to engage with the local community and elected representatives “on our desire to establish whether or not there is a viable source of unconventional gas in the Canonbie area which could bring much needed economic development,” said chief executive Glen.
When approached by the Sunday Herald, McAlpine said: “I would rather not comment, other than to say that it’s always been my practice to share relevant material with constituents on issues I am pursuing on their behalf.”
Copies of the correspondence between Buccleuch, Fergus Ewing, Joan McAlpine and Paul Younger can be downloaded below:
Buccleuch to Ewing on 27/08/13 (33KB pdf)
Ewing to Buccleuch on 14/11/13 (45KB pdf)
McAlpine to Ewing on 14/11/13 (37KB Word)
Ewing to McAlpine on 20/01/14 (70KM pdf)
Younger to McAlpine and reply on 13/11/14 (20KB Word)