What can be done about fracking/unconventional gas?

Janet Moxley
on : 
10th Nov 2014

 The UK Government have recently opened up new areas of Scotland where companies can bid for licences for fracking and other unconventional gas extraction. Some of these licences have already been sold e.g to Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth plant. Because Energy Policy is not devolved at present the UK Government was able to do this without getting permission from the Scottish Government.
However, just because the licences have been issued doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps which Scottish Government could take to make unconventional gas extraction in Scotland very unattractive using the powers which it currently has on planning and environmental regulation. These could be used to put in place a really strong regulatory framework which could effectively stop this unconventional gas extraction. Scottish Government have used a similar approach to prevent the development of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland, and there is no reason why they could not do the same for unconventional gas. Their stance so far has been rather hesitant and if they are serious about meeting their much vaunted climate change targets they need to do much more about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Opening the floodgates to unconventional gas extraction won’t do this.
There are several steps which they could take including:
1) Setting similar buffer zones between developments and settlements to that in Australia (2 km), where a settlement is any inhibited dwelling (not just large towns). There very few places in the central belt coal/shale are or the Canonbie area which are more than 2 km from a house. So far Scottish Government have only specified a discretionary buffer zone which is to be proposed by the extraction companies and reviewed by local planning authorities. This is not good enough – we know that local authorities have taken a very variable approach to defining settlements and setting buffer distances around other developments such as opencast sites. 

2) Setting requirements for very hefty restoration/accident clean up bonds to ensure that any sites approved are properly restored and that any incidents of contamination are dealt with at the expense of the extraction companies, not the public purse. The restoration bonds which councils were fobbed off with for opencast coals sites were woefully inadequate and have left councils will huge bills for restoration in the wake of Scottish Coal’s bankruptcy.

3) Ensuring that sufficient funding is extracted from operators to allow SEPA to do effective monitoring of methane emissions, groundwater contamination and other pollution risks are any extraction sites. SEPA have had a series of large staff cuts in recent years and don’t have the capability to do this at present. I don’t think it is acceptable for operators to “self monitor” or appoint an “independent” monitor of their own choosing. It must be SEPA and it must be paid for by operators licence fees, not through SEPA’s grant from taxpayers.
4) Ensuring that detailed monitoring of background levels of contaminants in groundwater is carried out before any drilling starts. At present there is only very limited monitoring of groundwater in Scotland mainly because it is difficult to get at because there are not many boreholes. It is essential that the condition of groundwater is understood before drilling starts as otherwise operators will be able to claim that pollution pre-dated gas extraction activities.

5) Setting up a proper a regulatory framework for this activity – none exists at present. This must include binding guidance to local authorities on how to deal with unconventional gas applications.

6) Banning drilling under anyone’s property without their permission (this will stop sideways drilling from remote locations). UK Gov ran a consultation on this and reported back at the end of Sept recommending changes to the trespass laws to allow drilling under property without consent. These changes have not been implemented yet as they need changes to the law, so will have to go through Parliament which could mean that they do not get enacted before the 2015 general election. UK Gov say that their consultation applies to England, Scotland and Wales, but this seems to be based on energy policy not being devolved and ignores the fact that the trepass laws in Scotland devolved and are different to those in England and Wales. I am not sure which get the final say (although I can guess which UK Gov think do!). So we can still lobby MPs about this (suspect it could become an issue in the 2015 election) and try to get an opinion on whether UK Gov can, in fact, change the trepass laws in Scotland.

7) Requiring that all applications for unconventional gas extraction and related activity to be heard by the planning committee to avoid the Canonbie situation where DART Energy/Buccleuch Estates made separate applications for about 30 well heads and a compressor station each of which were dealt with as “minor developments” and so were approved by council officers without the planning committee being aware of them or realising their significance when put together. 

8) Supplying sufficient funding to allow local authorities to recruit staff with sufficient specialist expertise to be able to properly assess applications.

9) Giving clear guidance on how the duties on public bodies relating to climate change set out in section 44.1.a of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act should be applied by planners. This section states that “A public body must, in exercising its functions, act in the way best calculated to contribute to the delivery of the [emissions reduction] targets”. To date this has not been used to challenge developments which could increase greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no reason why it could not be, and clearly unconventional gas extraction will increase greenhouse gas emissions both by leaks of methane from wells and by carbon dioxide emissions from burning the gas.

10) Requiring Health Impact Assessments as well as Environmental Impact Assessments for these developments.

However so far the SNP has sat on the fence about this rather more than I would like. I hope that this was just because they didn’t want to rock the boat with their friends in the fossil fuel industry in the run up to Indy Ref and that now they will have the courage to take some sensible action on this. Greens will certainly be pushing for it.