Fergus Ewing's potty populism on fracking

Fergus Ewing's potty populism on fracking

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 30, January, 2015

WEDNESDAY was another black day for science-led, evidence-based policy making in the Scottish Parliament. What we witnessed was facts being cast aside, and in their place, an outbreak of potty populism in which the only goal was to out-shout a political rival.

I am, of course, referring to the announcement from the SNP Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, of a moratorium on all applications for consent for fracking – the popular term used to describe one of the ways in which ‘unconventional’ gas is extracted from under the land.

The emotive quality of the word itself is partly to blame; “fracking” sounds like a bad thing. Having learnt the dark arts of PR, green fundamentalists have thus painted it as a threat to our very existence. 

Politicians, of course, are supposed to weed out the scare-mongering from the facts. But as the pathetic bidding war which has broken out between Labour and the SNP over the last week has shown, that necessary scepticism has been thrown out in favour of crazy political point-scoring.

Never happier than when trying to pick a fight with Westminster, the SNP has insisted that the UK Government halt any new plans for the industry in its tracks prior to the devolution of licencing powers to Holyrood. 

Ever the opportunist, Scottish Labour’s Jim Murphy decided he would try to out-bid the SNP by demanding a complete moratorium.

This led on Monday to the unedifying spectacle of the two parties vying with each other to show how opposed they could be to a massively important new industry for us all. The danger is that they may have succeeded.

What a scandal that would be. Unconventional gas could provide thousands of jobs across the UK, with many of them in Scotland. More fundamentally, we may need it if we still want to have moderate bills, and lights which stay on.

The ironic thing about the sudden anti-fracking mania is that there is nothing new about shale gas or extracting coal seam gas in Scotland.

In Lanarkshire in the 1960s and in the outskirts of Glasgow in the 1980s, fracking took place. We frack today in the North Sea, where rock seams are cracked to release trapped gas.

There is a long tradition of extracting shale gas from the rich fields underneath Scotland’s central-belt, and, today, the firms that would like to do so here don’t even propose fracking at all – in their case, water is pumped through the coal seam to release the gas underneath.

We all know the extraordinary impact that this technology has had in the USA, now the world’s largest gas producer. The extra gas coming into the market cut wholesale gas prices by 50% and created an estimated one million jobs. 

It has meant the West has freed itself from the energy strait-jacket that the oil states in the Gulf would so dearly like to wrap us in.

Yet the environmental movement has moved quickly, whipping up opposition, peddling pseudoscience and casting up ridiculous scare stories about earthquakes and exploding taps.  

It is vital for Scotland’s future prosperity that we stop for a second to consider the facts.

Firstly, we need to look at security of supply. We have already gone from being a net exporter of gas to an importer. We need gas more than ever before (our over-reliance on intermittent wind power has seen to that). So the question is where will we get if from? I do not want to rely on Mr Putin’s Russia for our gas supplies. I question why we should ignore our own resources in order to buy Ferraris for Qataris. For that reason alone, it makes sense to develop a domestic source of gas which is – literally – right under our feet.

Secondly, there’s the impact on energy bills. America’s recovery from the financial crash has been due in no small part to the cap on energy bills caused by shale gas. Our reserves are smaller, but a domestic supply of gas is bound to have a beneficial effect in driving household bills down.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of carbon emissions. Listening to the green fundamentalists, you’d think that “fracking” was going to end the planet. But the truth is that the US has saved millions of tonnes in carbon by shifting from burning coal to burning gas. Gas is a fossil fuel but it is far cleaner than coal. Where does the green lobby think our electricity will come from if gas is cut off?

And lastly, there’s the economics. Across Britain, it is estimated that 30,000 jobs could be created if a shale gas industry was encouraged. In Scotland, we have extraordinary engineering expertise in Aberdeen and the North East thanks to the North Sea. We know from the last few painful weeks that those jobs cannot be taken for granted. With a fair wind, Scotland could provide the talent and expertise to drive a British gas boom.

The hypocrisy of the other major parties here is spectacular. It is less than two years since Labour, SNP and LibDem politicians all went down on bended knee to keep the huge Ineos plant at Grangemouth open. 

But this is a plant which depends specifically on shale gas as its raw material, currently shipped on Chinese-built tankers across the Atlantic from Pennyslvania. By deliberately trying to block Britain’s shale gas industry this week, those politicians have shown their concern fifteen months ago to be skin-deep.

At least the Greens are consistent. They do not want unconventional gas and they accept that they are therefore opposing jobs in Scotland’s central-belt.

The facts are simple. None of the approximately 50,000 horizontal shale wells drilled in America during the last decade have generated significant earthquakes. In January 2012, the British Geological Survey noted that the risks of shale development to groundwater and earthquakes had been exaggerated. 

The UK Government is building up the world’s most stringent regulatory regime for this industry to ensure it is safe. Yes, the industry has got off to the worst possible public relations start – but that is no reason to simply kill it off.

Extracting unconventional gas poses unique challenges in the UK. It will be more expensive than in the USA and we should be realistic about the upsides it will give us. But with the Scottish Government having already decided to exclude new nuclear from the energy mix, it cannot rely on ever more wind turbines to power our homes.

As a country, we have put in place the world’s most stringent safety and environmental protections. We have some of the world’s best engineers right here, waiting to use their talents for this country. Forty years on from the first drills going into the North Sea, we have the chance to strike the energy jackpot once again.

Yet without clear-headed political leadership, however, we risk having some of the world’s highest energy bills. And we risk the lights going out. It is, simply, madness. And what is worse, I suspect that Fergus Ewing knows that full well. 


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