by Fergus Ewing Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism
The Scottish Government has long been concerned about the United Kingdom Government’s approach to the licensing of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland. Following the Smith commission process, and given that licensing powers are coming to Scotland—something that I campaigned for and welcome—it makes no sense for the UK Government to exercise them in Scotland.
The Scottish Government’s policy has been cautious, considered and evidence-based, whereas the UK’s approach has sought to develop shale gas quickly, at any cost. In particular, the Tory plan to remove landowners’ rights to object to fracking under their property is a disgrace. I formally objected to the UK Government plans and I am pleased that the UK will not now remove householders’ rights in Scotland.
Given that precedent of not acting in a policy area that is about to be devolved, the UK Government should do the same with onshore licensing and not issue any further licences. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, last Friday to make that point. That is also why Scottish National Party MPs backed the amendment in the House of Commons, which called for a UK-wide moratorium on onshore oil and gas.
This Government takes the issue of unconventional oil and gas, including fracking, very seriously. There are a range of views on the issue and we have tried to listen to all of them as we have developed our policy. We have listened carefully to concerns raised by local communities and environmental campaigners and have strengthened planning policy in five key ways, including the introduction of buffer zones for the first time.
However, we need to do more. We recognise that local communities are likely to bear the brunt of any unconventional oil and gas developments, particularly through increased traffic and the related emissions and noise impacts, which are issues that must be more carefully considered and subject to further research. We are therefore working to further strengthen planning guidance, and my colleague Alex Neil, as the minister responsible for planning, is taking that forward.
We have ensured that strong environmental regulation is in place via the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and made clear that we wish to tighten that further. Work to take that forward will begin shortly, in partnership with my colleague Dr Aileen McLeod, the Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.
Last summer, when the independent expert scientific panel published its report, we said that we would look further at the public health aspects of unconventional oil and gas. I can confirm today that we plan to commission a full public health impact assessment. We have listened to legitimate concerns about the potential negative impacts. However, we must also acknowledge that some take a different view and see opportunities in unconventional oil and gas extraction. The oil and gas industry, in particular, has a potential interest in this area for a number of reasons, as does the chemical industry. Ineos has indicated that it can use shale gas as both a fuel and a petrochemical feedstock for Grangemouth. I am sure that I do not need to remind members of Grangemouth’s economic importance to the Scottish economy.
Although much of the debate on oil and gas taxation has been about the revenues from our offshore oil fields, onshore extraction could lead to additional public revenues.
There is also an international dimension to unconventionals, and we should have due regard to the experience and practice of other countries. If there are lessons to be learned, we must understand what those are and implement them here. We will seek to do that as part of our evidence-gathering activities.
I want to ensure that the voices of the communities that are likely to be most affected are heard in a more formal and structured way. I therefore announce that, in addition to the technical work that I have referred to on planning, environmental regulation and assessing the impact on public health, the Scottish ministers will launch a full public consultation on unconventional oil and gas extraction. That will allow everyone with a view on the issue to feed it into Government; it is a logical next step in the cautious and evidence-based approach that we have demonstrated to date and an example of this Government’s commitment to community engagement. It will also mean that longer-term decisions on unconventional oil and gas will be informed not just by technical assessments, but by a fuller understanding of public opinion.
I have set out this Government’s cautious, evidence-based approach to date and the work that we will do to build on and further inform that approach. The further work that I have announced on planning, environmental regulation, assessing the health impact and holding a full consultation process will take time to complete. We will update Parliament on the timescales for that work in due course.
Given the importance of that work, it would be inappropriate to allow any planning consents in the meantime. I am therefore announcing a moratorium on the granting of planning consents for all unconventional oil and gas developments, including fracking. That moratorium will continue until such time as the work that I have referred to has been completed. I will keep Parliament advised of the progress of that work. A direction will be sent to all Scottish planning authorities today to give effect to that policy. In order to ensure consistency in the regulatory regimes, the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform will issue a similar direction to SEPA for relevant new controlled activity regulation licences.
The Scottish Government has taken a responsible, cautious and evidence-based approach to unconventional oil and gas extraction, and my statement sends the strongest possible message that we will continue to do so. When we assume responsibility for onshore licensing of unconventional oil and gas, rest assured that my colleague Mr Neil and I will deliver a robust, consistent and complementary licensing and planning system that will be developed through the evidence that we receive from our consultation and the further research that I have announced.
We should never close our minds to the potential opportunities of new technologies, but we must also ensure that community, environmental and health concerns are never simply brushed aside. This Government will not allow that to happen, and I hope that the actions that I have announced today will be widely welcomed as proportionate and responsible.