Striking a balance: fossil fuels
In October, Holyrood voted in favour of the Scottish Government’s ban on fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of drilling into the earth, before directing a high-pressure water mixture into the rock to release shale gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure, forcing the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
The process can be carried out vertically or by drilling horizontally to the rock layer and can create new pathways to release gas or can be used to extend existing channels. The term fracking refers to how the rock is fractured apart by the high pressure mixture.
Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy Paul Wheelhouse’s motion was passed by 91 to 28 after the SNP accepted amendments by Labour and the Greens to include the ban in future National Planning Frameworks.
The Conservatives opposed the move, with MSP Murdo Fraser describing it as “an ill-thought out decision which completely disregards scientific evidence”.
Although the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Lib Dems all supported a ban, parties were divided on the best way to do so, with opposition MSPs against the idea of enforcing the ban through planning powers, rather than legislation.
More than 60,000 people responded to the Scottish Government’s four-month consultation on fracking, with 99 per cent expressing opposition. Securing the ban in law would stop a future government from overturning it without parliamentary approval.
Friends of the Earth Scotland’s head of campaigns, Mary Church, said the vote “leaves the door open for the Parliament to put the fracking ban into law when licensing powers finally come to Holyrood”.
She said: “[This] vote ends any hopes the industry had of fracking in Scotland. This is a huge victory for the anti-fracking movement, particularly for communities on the frontline who have been fighting for a ban these last six years.”
Wheelhouse said: “We undertook one of the most far-reaching examinations of unconventional oil and gas ever carried out by any government and created numerous opportunities throughout the process for discourse and debate.
“In coming to a view on unconventional oil and gas, we carefully considered the findings of our extensive research alongside the results of our public consultation.
“As a government, and as a parliament, we have a responsibility to make decisions in the interests of the people whom we represent, confident that the choices we make will not compromise health and safety or damage the environment in which we live, nor undermine our efforts to achieve Scotland’s annual statutory greenhouse gas emissions targets.
“It was clear from the response to our consultation that there is no social licence for unconventional oil and gas to be taken forward at this time, and the research we have conducted did not provide a strong enough basis from which to address those communities’ concerns.”
However, in January, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to defend the ban, following the news that petrochemical company Ineos has applied for the move to go to a judicial review.
Ineos announced it had “serious concerns” over ministers’ decision to introduce an indefinite moratorium on fracking and would apply for a judicial review.
The company’s shale operations manager, Tom Pickering, said: “Ineos, Reach and other operators have invested significantly in unconventional development over the years, against a supportive regulatory and planning backdrop.
“If Scotland wants to continue to be considered as a serious place to do business, then it cannot simply remove the policy support that attracted that investment in the first place without proper procedures being followed and without the offer of appropriate financial compensation.”
Taking questions on the Scottish Government’s energy strategy, the First Minister said the ban was important “for generations to come” and that she was “confident in the decision that we have taken and the process behind it”.
She also faced calls from Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie to follow New York in divesting from fossil fuels.
Harvie said: “The UK Government and the Scottish Government like to claim credit for environmental action, but they also want ever bigger tax breaks for the fossil fuel companies that are at the root of our environmental crisis.
“Is it not time to recognise that we can no longer invest our future in the fossil fuel industry and that we should, instead, join the hundreds of cities, institutions and countries that are truly leading?”
But, highlighting the Scottish Government’s support for renewable energy, Sturgeon said: “We support our oil and gas sector appropriately because it is important to our economy and lots of jobs depend on it.
“In the Programme for Government, we set out our ambition for electric and low-emission vehicles, on which we will take even greater action in the longer term.
“We have also taken the decision not to allow fracking in Scotland. Given [the] announcement of the judicial review, I will not say more about that other than that we are confident in the decision that we have taken and the process behind it.
“We will continue to lead by example. The issue is important not just for this generation but for generations to come. We all have a responsibility to do the right thing, and this government will continue to make sure that we do it.”
The Scottish Government has said its energy strategy, released in December, will strengthen development of local energy, empower and protect consumers, and support climate-change efforts while tackling fuel poverty.
The strategy has six strategic priorities:
• Promote consumer engagement and protect consumers from excessive costs
• Champion Scotland’s renewable energy potential, creating new jobs and supply chain opportunities
• Improve the energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes, buildings, industrial processes and manufacturing
• Continue to support investment and innovation across the oil and gas sector, including exploration, innovation, subsea engineering, decommissioning and carbon capture and storage
• Ensure homes and businesses can continue to depend on secure, resilient and flexible energy supplies
• Empower communities by supporting innovative local energy systems and networks
Wheelhouse said: “Scotland has world-class skills, expertise and knowledge, from the North Sea oil and gas industry to our academic institutions and smaller start-ups to our cutting-edge low carbon technology.
“This strategy recognises and builds on our achievements to date and on Scotland’s capacity for innovation. It places consumers, and their interests, more firmly than ever at the heart of everything that we do.
“We are leading the way in promoting community and locally owned renewable energy – well ahead of the rest of the UK – as figures announced today demonstrate.
“This strategy will guide decisions of the Scottish Government over the coming decades. We want to make sure, within the scope of our devolved powers, good stewardship of Scotland’s energy sector – something we have called the UK Government to step up to for years.”
In September, a study carried out by scientists at the University of Edinburgh said Scottish and UK oil industries are entering their final decade of production and if this is correct, the UK will soon have to import all its oil and gas needs.
Study leader Professor Roy Thompson, of the university’s School of GeoSciences, said: “The UK urgently needs a bold energy transition plan, instead of trusting to dwindling fossil fuel reserves and possible fracking.
“We must act now and drive the necessary shift to a clean economy, with integration between energy systems. There needs to be greater emphasis on renewables, energy storage and improved insulation and energy efficiencies.”
Analysis took into account the long-term downward trends of oil and gas field size and lifespan, alongside the break-even costs for fracking.
However, offshore industry leaders disputed the claims.
“Production has increased over the last two years and we expect that to continue to rise,” said Deirdre Michie, chief executive of the trade association, Oil & Gas UK.
“Nine new fields began production in 2016 and a further seven started producing in the first half of this year – most of which will still be producing in 2030. A further 12 are due on-stream by the end of next year. Some notably large developments will still be producing towards 2050.
“Advances in technologies are also presenting fresh opportunities and helping make discoveries commercially viable.”
The Scottish Government has also disagreed with the findings, saying offshore oil and gas has a “bright future”.
A spokeswoman said: “The basin has up to 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent remaining – and this year has seen one of the biggest new discoveries of untapped oil in recent times.”
Despite ambitious renewable targets, it’s clear that fossil fuels are not going anywhere anytime soon. Even with the fracking ban, Scotland imports shale gas from the US for treatment at Ineos’s Grangemouth plant, leading some to accuse the Scottish Government of hypocrisy.
Regardless of this, it is clear that politicians and policymakers must work out how to balance the nation’s energy mix – green and otherwise – given the importance of energy to Scotland’s economy.