Plans to exploit onshore gas in Scotland by mining coalbed methane or fracking look doomed after the SNP and Labour both moved to ban them yesterday.
The SNP disclosed that its MPs in Westminster would be voting for a moratorium on both technologies to make sure that no licences are granted before powers are devolved. If agreed, the moratorium could last between 18 and 30 months.
Labour said that if it won the Scottish election in 2016 it would suspend coalbed methane and fracking developments until environmental and health safeguards were in place. Projects would only go ahead if approved by local referendums.
Neither party is promising to completely rule out developing onshore gas, but both have significantly shifted their positions in response to growing public concern. The moves were welcomed by environmental groups – though they pointed out that the Scottish government still had to make its position clear.
A major application to extract coalbed methane at Airth, near Falkirk, will soon have to be determined by Scottish ministers, while the Duke of Buccleuch is pursuing a similar development at Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. Both are fiercely opposed by local communities.
There are no specific applications to frack for shale gas in Scotland. But the chemicals giant, Ineos, has bought fracking exploration licences for a large area of central Scotland around its petrochemical plant at Grangemouth.
The SNP’s Westminster energy spokesman, Mike Weir MP, told the Sunday Herald that he and his colleagues would be backing an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill in the House of Commons on Monday. The amendment, proposed by Labour, LibDem, Plaid Cymru and Greens MSPs, would impose a UK-wide moratorium on “the exploitation of unconventional petroleum” – including coalbed methane and fracking.
“The SNP will be voting in favour of the moratorium on fracking to ensure no licences will be granted in Scotland until such powers are devolved, as set out by the Smith Commission,” Weir said.
“The Scottish Parliament has legislative control over planning and environmental measures but it is unclear as to how these powers interact with the powers retained by the UK government,” he said. “This is a perfect illustration why all powers over fracking, both licensing and planning, should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament so it is able to review the whole regime.”
The Scottish Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, has written to the UK government, asking for no more licences to be issued for onshore gas in Scotland. He is also planning a statement to the Scottish Parliament this week on how ministers will strengthen their precautionary approach in Scotland.
Labour’s Scottish leader, Jim Murphy MP, has promised to halt fracking until three conditions are met. No planning approvals will be given without a local referendum, a “comprehensive review of the baseline conditions”, and fracking lessons from the rest of the UK have been learnt.
“If I am elected First Minister in 2016 there will be no onshore fracking in Scotland until it has been shown beyond all doubt that it can be carried out safely,” Murphy said.
Labour’s Scottish environment spokeswoman, Sarah Boyack MSP, yesterday made clear that the party’s new policy included a halt to the development of coalbed methane. “We want current applications suspended,” she said.
Up to 30 community and environmental groups across Scotland have been pressing politicians to back a ban on fracking and coalbed methane. Protests are due to take place at Grangemouth today and in Westminster on Monday.
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, welcomed the moves towards a moratorium, but pointed out that the coalition government in London could still win the vote on Monday. She called on the Scottish government to ban all unconventional gas using its existing powers.
“Labour has significantly upped the ante by promising a moratorium in Scotland if elected next year,” she said. “It will be very puzzling to people in Scotland if the Scottish government does not act to put the unconventional gas industry on hold while its impacts on climate and communities are properly assessed.”
As well as coalbed methane and fracking, there are also controversial proposals to gasify coal under the seabed in the Forth of Forth, the Solway Firth and elsewhere. These schemes don’t seem to be covered by the moratorium that the SNP is backing, or Labour’s new fracking policy.
The gas industry contended that there were no geological, environmental or public health reasons to stop fracking. "Within 15 years Scotland will be a net importer of gas and at the mercy of international markets for its gas without shale,” said Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Oil and Gas.
“All a moratorium would do would be to put back development of natural gas from shale in the UK, with a resulting negative effect on the UK’s energy security and plans to phase out coal and reduce harmful emissions.”