In an interview about fracking for underground shale gas Ewing says that “we need to think how it will be, how it may be, applied to Scotland” and talks about the “opportunities” the industry could bring. The comments have been seized on by campaigners as evidence that the minister thinks that fracking has a future.
Ewing announced a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and coalbed methane developments on 28 January. He promised a health investigation and a public consultation, which is not now expected to begin until the autumn.
In March INEOS, the Swiss-based company that runs the Grangemouth petrochemical complex, launched a charm offensive in a bid to win community support for fracking across the central belt. The firm has bought licences for shale gas exploration across 700 square miles of Scotland and aims to become “the biggest player in the UK shale gas industry”.
In the BBC One programme, The War over Fracking, Ewing declines to say whether he will introduce a permanent ban if the Scottish public clearly rejects fracking. “Let’s look at the opportunities but also look very carefully at what it might mean for Scotland,” he says.
“We think it’s right with a technology, hydraulic fracturing, which is not new but it’s new to Scotland, we should proceed with care. We should proceed on the basis of evidence, and we should have a national debate about the topic.”
Ewing accepts that there are areas where more work is required. “Hydraulic fracturing has been carried out in the USA on a very large scale, but the central belt of Scotland is not North Dakota. It is different and we need to think how it will be, how it may be, applied to Scotland.”
The government will listen carefully to the industry and to environmental groups, Ewing says. “People will come to their own conclusions, perhaps using that great tool that Scotland bequeathed in the enlightenment to the world – rational analysis.”
For INEOS director, Tom Crotty, the fracking moratorium is the Scottish Government wanting “to take a breather while we gather information”. He tells the BBC: “That’s a great thing, and we’re completely committed to that. So at the moment it’s not frustrating. If it went on and on, it would be very frustrating.”
The comments have infuriated fracking critics. “This betrays what Fergus Ewing really thinks - that fracking is the future,” says Ed Pybus from the campaign group, Frack Off Scotland.
“His moratorium is nothing more than political posturing - a temporary fix to help get the SNP through the next two elections. And, if Ewing has his way, it will then be abandoned, and companies will start drilling.”
Pybus adds: “The SNP leadership should now be questioning whether they want such a fracking fan at the heart of a progressive, environmentally responsible government.”
Bill Frew, who chairs a broad alliance of concerned community groups from across Scotland, thinks that “intention and forward momentum” is Ewing’s message. “If the Energy Minister’s comments reflect current Scottish Government thinking, then the SNP honeymoon period may be over very soon,” he says.
“Thousands of local people who have become engaged in the political future of their communities and their country, will be justifiably outraged if the SNP proposes to stand back and allow huge swathes of Scotland to be turned into a giant gasfield, while the main beneficiaries are major landowners and non-doms.”
The fear is that the SNP government is preparing to “sell out to developers”, Frew argues. “People will have even more cause to be angry when they realise that the longer-term risks to them, their families and the local environment are ignored or brushed aside.”
According to the Scottish Green Party’s co-convener and MSP, Patrick Harvie, many people would be alarmed by Ewing’s remarks. “Not only is the SNP’s Energy Minister still talking about this dangerous industry as an opportunity, but he appears to be suggesting it will eventually take place,” he says.
“It’s also telling that INEOS describes the current onshore moratorium as a breather. What we need to do is turn it into a permanent ban, for the sake of our communities and our climate.”
The Scottish Government stresses that the moratorium has been supported by industry and environmental groups, and is preventing fracking from taking place. “We are taking a careful, considered and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas,” says a spokesman. “The moratorium and the planned public consultation will allow all stakeholders and local communities to have their say.”
* BBC Scotland Investigates: The War Over Fracking will be broadcast on BBC1 Scotland at 19.30 on Wednesday 29 April, and be available on BBC iPlayer.
Read previous stories about fracking and other unconventional gas developments here.