Thursday, 9 October 2014

Scotland's Vote 29: Frack on, frack off

The UK government has decided to loosen restrictions on fracking across Britain. This has met with fury from independence supporters in Scotland, particularly the SNP.

To be clear, I think fracking is a terrible idea. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping material into wells under high pressure in order to force pockets of shale gas to be released. The risks are considerable and not well quantified; and if we are serious about combating climate change, finding new ways of extracting hydrocarbons to be burned should not be a priority.

Independence supporters have not been slow to exploit this issue. They claim a vote for independence was a vote against fracking. A casual observer might think Westminster has opened the gates to unrestricted fracking across Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament will be helpless as its most heavily populated regions become a landscape resembling Mordor.

Princes Street Gardens after fracking.
Source: lotr.wikia.com
The reality is not so simple. The proposed legislation would remove one specific obstacle to fracking: The drilling company would no longer have to secure permission from every landowner who could be affected.

This is bad news if you happen to live above a fracking site. The relevant authorities can overrule any personal objection you may have, and allow drilling to go ahead. Here is the important caveat: Each and every fracking development requires the permission of government agencies within Scotland, all of which answer to the Scottish Parliament.

A UK government spokesman said, perhaps with a trace of bemusement:

All decisions on whether or not to grant planning and permitting consent for shale development in Scotland remain with local authorities, the Scottish environmental regulator SEPA, and ultimately with the Scottish Government. 
This means that local communities in Scotland will still have full powers to decide whether to approve or decline any proposed shale or geothermal developments in Scotland.

This has not daunted the SNP. Its environment minister, Fergus Ewing, said:

Whatever your view on the issue of unconventional oil and gas - and it is clear that there are both opportunities and concerns - there is only one way that the people of Scotland can determine the approach in Scotland - including beneath their homes and land. 
That is with the devolution of the necessary powers to Scotland and the current devolution process for the extensive new powers promised in the vow should include these powers.

The strategy of the SNP is clear:

  1. Identify an unpopular decision taken by Westminster.
  2. Ignore any existing powers of the Scottish Parliament which could mitigate or reverse this decision.
  3. Tell everyone this shows why Scotland must have greater powers, if not full independence.

It is extremely cynical, but likely to be effective.

The SNP doesn't even pretend to be against fracking in all circumstances. Ewing speaks of "both opportunities and concerns", which is hardly a ringing condemnation.

Would things be different if there had been a Yes vote last month? We will never know, but it seems unlikely. The SNP's wider environmental record has been highly questionable. A report commissioned in 2013 by RSPB Scotland, WWF Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust harshly criticised the SNP government, saying:

Political will to pursue environmental priorities embodied in regulation is not always sustained in the face of economic interests.

If one day Scotland becomes independent, it will not immediately become a green utopia. Its government will be interested in the jobs and tax revenue generated by projects like fracking. To the extent it depends on North Sea oil, it will want friendly relations with multinational petroleum companies and be sympathetic towards their point of view.

The SNP are brazenly trying to use environmental sentiment to their own ends. Whether their actions actually benefit the environment is of secondary concern to them. If the SNP wanted an absolute ban on fracking in Scotland, it could enact one tomorrow; but that would not serve its purpose of stirring up resentment against Westminster. Anyone in Scotland who cares about the environment should turn at least some attention to the devolved government at Holyrood.



Programming note: In case anyone is wondering, this is not going to become a full-time blog on Scottish politics. The referendum was three weeks ago, the votes have long since been counted, and there are plenty of other things I intend to write about.

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