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Scotland’s Onshore Unconventional Oil and Gas Policy

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I am aware that details in relation to this statement were briefly and inadvertently released yesterday. All members of the Parliamentary Bureau were made aware of that at the time. We have discussed this serious matter with those concerned, Presiding Officer, and I reassure you and colleagues across Parliament that the Scottish Government will take appropriate procedural measures, with the intention of ensuring that it does not happen again.

Today’s statement on onshore unconventional oil and gas poli cy is the conclusion of a policy development process that began as far back as 2013. Over the intervening period, our energy and climate change policy has developed significantly. In 2013, our world-leading climate change legislation committed to emissions reductions targets of 80 per cent by 2050. Just last week, our Parliament passed new legislation committing Scotland to net-zero emissions by 2045. In 2013, no one would have predicted that renewable energy sources such as offshore wind would secure contracts for difference—CFD—to produce electricity more cheaply than existing gas-fired power stations.

There has been a dramatic change in public perceptions of the environment and the climate crisis, and in the expectations of the Government to respond. Throughout the period, our cautious evidence-led approach to the future of unconventional oil and gas development, including coal-bed methane extraction and hydraulic fracturing—the latter being commonly known as fracking—has ensured that we have reached a policy decision that is fit for purpose.

We have considered evidence that has been gathered from a range of independent experts, we have undertaken the necessary statutory assessments and we have ensured that people and industry across Scotland have had the opportunity to participate in the policy-making process in a constructive, inclusive and transparent way.

We have undertaken one of the most far-reaching investigations into unconventional oil and gas by any Government in the world. That means that I am now able to confirm Scottish ministers’ final policy position on unconventional oil and gas—a policy that is informed by facts, evidence and analysis, as well as by public views.

Following careful consideration of the statutory and other assessments and related consultation responses, and considering all the previous evidence that we have assembled, ministers have concluded that an unconventional oil and gas industry would not be of sufficient positive benefit to Scotland to outweigh its negative impacts.

Therefore, based on the evidence on impacts and the clear lack of social acceptability, I confirm today that the Scottish Government’s final policy position is that we do not support the development of unconventional oil and gas—often known as fracking—in Scotland. That means that there is no support from the Government for development connected to the onshore exploration, appraisal or production of coal-bed methane, shale oil or shale gas using unconventional oil and gas extraction techniques, including hydraulic fracturing and dewatering for coal-bed methane.

I will now set out the detail behind that conclusion, before I set out how we will enact it. In September 2013, the Scottish Government established an independent expert scientific panel on unconventional oil and gas. The panel’s report, which was published in July 2014, highlighted a number of issues that required further investigation, prior to a policy decision being reached. Therefore, on 28 January 2015, the Scottish Government put in place a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas development.

On 8 November 2016, we published a set of independent expert reports that considered the specific issues that had been identified by the expert panel, which included health, economics, seismicity, decommissioning, climate change and transport impacts. That included a health impact assessment that was undertaken by Health Protection Scotland, which highlighted that there is insufficient epidemiological evidence on health impacts and indicated that a precautionary approach to unconventional oil and gas is warranted on the basis of the available evidence.

On 31 January 2017, we launched a comprehensive public consultation on unconventional oil and gas, “Talking ‘Fracking’: A Consultation on Unconventional Oil and Gas”, which received more than 60,000 responses.

On 3 October 2017, in response to publication of the consultation responses, I confirmed to Parliament that having considered the suite of evidence, including expert reports and consultation responses, Scottish ministers’ preferred policy was not to support unconventional oil and gas development, subject to the necessary statutory assessments, including a strategic environmental assessment, being carried out prior to a decision being made on the final policy. On 24 October 2017, following a parliamentary debate, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of that preferred position.

In May 2018, the Scottish Government successfully defended a legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s actions in relation to unconventional oil and gas.

In October 2018, the Scottish Government published and consulted on the strategic environmental assessment report, a partial business and regulatory impact assessment and the preferred policy position, which was updated to reflect the devolution of onshore oil and gas licensing powers in February 2018. The environmental assessment report concluded that, even when taking account of existing regulation and consenting processes, the development of an unconventional oil and gas industry has the potential for significant negative effects on the environment. It also concluded that the effect of the preferred policy position would be to avoid the environmental impacts that are associated with the unconventional oil and gas industry.

Altogether, 2,577 responses were received to the 2018 consultation. They comprised 329 substantive responses and 2,243 standard campaign responses, which were submitted by supporters of Friends of the Earth Scotland. Those led the Scottish Government to form the view that it would be helpful to provide further clarification on a number of points that were raised in response to the consultation documents, specifically regarding the preferred policy position and its objectives.

On 30 April 2019, we published an addendum to the SEA report, the preferred policy position statement and the partial BRIA, and we invited further comments on the points that were covered. The addendum set out that the objectives of the preferred policy of there being no support were to ensure that, in the planning sphere and in relation to ministers’ onshore oil and gas licensing and regulatory powers, the policy should, first, minimise the potential risk of environmental and health impacts by adopting a precautionary approach. It set out, secondly, that it should promote the achievement of our energy transition goals and, thirdly, that it should maximise the prospects of meeting the Scottish Government’s carbon emissions and climate change targets. A total of 98 responses were received on the consultation addendum, comprised of 15 from organisations and 83 from individuals.

The analysis of the 2018 and 2019 consultations and the responses to them will be published today, along with the final business and regulatory impact assessment, which has been informed by those responses.

The majority of responses to the 2018 and 2019 consultations correspond with those that were received to our 2017 “Talking ‘Fracking’”, in which the predominant view of respondents, who live mainly in the densely populated areas of the central belt, where unconventional oil and gas development has been proposed, was not in favour of unconventional oil and gas. No consultation on unconventional oil and gas that the Scottish Government undertakes should be considered to be an opinion poll. However, the overwhelming response to each of the consultations indicates that there is no social licence for the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland.

We have also considered our environment, economic and energy policies as part of that process. The Scottish Government has been at the forefront of global action to limit climate change. Our “Climate Change Plan: The Third Report on Proposals and Policies 2018-2032”, which was published in February 2018, sets out our approach to meeting our statutory emissions reduction targets to 2032, and has paved the way for Scotland’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The plan is due to be updated in 2020.

Last week, Parliament passed the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, which contains the most ambitious statutory targets of any country in the world for 2020, 2030 and 2040. In its significant report on global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that, by 2050, the world needs to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Scotland will do so by 2045 at the latest. That will require new and existing policies to be developed or reviewed to ensure that they are compatible with our targets. That is evident in the recent programme for government, which has climate change at its core.

Our environment and economy are intrinsically linked. The transformation of the energy system in Scotland, as part of the drive to tackle climate change, has the potential to bring significant economic and social opportunities to individuals, businesses and communities. We will work to ensure that those opportunities are realised, in order to ensure a just transition.

Similarly, one of the key aims of Scotland’s energy strategy is to secure a stable energy transition that harnesses Scotland’s renewable and low-carbon energy potential and creates new jobs and supply-chain opportunities.

The Committee on Climate Change’s advice is clear: oil and gas will continue to have a role in the energy mix even when we have reached net zero emissions. Scotland faces a similar challenge to that which is faced by all advanced economies in developing cost-effective substitutes for hydrocarbons. That means that we require an approach that reduces demand for carbon-intensive fuel sources and lowers our reliance on imported fossil fuels.

As we outlined in our programme for government, our continued support for oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea is based on a sustainable, secure and inclusive energy transition. That includes industry ambitions, as expressed in the industry’s “Roadmap to 2035: a blueprint for net-zero”, to become the first net zero carbon basin in the world, at the point of production.

We considered carefully how support for development of onshore unconventional oil and gas sits with our policies on climate change, energy transition and decarbonisation of our economy: we have concluded that such support is incompatible with them.

We will continue to work closely with businesses and key industrial clusters to support action to accelerate cost-effective industrial decarbonisation measures, including development and deployment of carbon capture, utilisation and storage, as well as hydrogen technologies.

Scotland’s chemicals industry has conveyed strong views on the potential benefits for Scottish industry of unconventional oil and gas. Although we do not share that vision, I make it clear that our support for Scotland’s industrial base and our desire to develop our world-class chemical manufacturing sector are unwavering. We will continue to support the sector in a range of ways in the months and years to come, but we do not agree that unconventional oil and gas extraction is a requirement of the industry’s future.

Let me set out what the policy position of there being no support for unconventional oil and gas means in practice. On 9 February 2018, the Scotland Act 2016 devolved to the Scottish Parliament certain powers to legislate for granting and regulation of licences for onshore oil and gas. The finalised policy of there being no support for unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland enables us to set a framework for the exercise of planning and licensing functions in respect of onshore oil and gas licensing, as devolved under the 2016 act. As a result of our decision, fracking could happen only if licences were issued. We do not intend to issue licences that would permit fracking.

To put that into immediate effect, the chief planner has today written to planning authorities throughout Scotland, stating our finalised policy and confirming that a new planning direction is being issued in respect of the policy. That action means that decisions on onshore unconventional oil and gas developments will be made having regard to planning policy and procedure, and within the framework of Scottish Government policy—a policy that does not support unconventional oil and gas development in Scotland.

Our finalised policy will be reflected in the next iteration of the national planning framework, which must, under the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, be approved by Parliament before it can be adopted by ministers. Once the new national planning framework has been approved, no Government will be able to adopt a revised national planning framework to support unconventional oil and gas development without the backing of Parliament. I am sure that that will be welcomed across the chamber and beyond it.

I am mindful that there have been calls from stakeholders and from colleagues in Parliament for a legislative ban on unconventional oil and gas. We do not consider that new legislation is necessary at this time to control unconventional oil and gas development. A strong policy position that is enacted through devolved planning powers and licensing is, we believe, robust, evidence led and sufficient. However the legislative option remains open if evidence appears, over time, that further action is required.

The final decision on unconventional oil and gas is the culmination of careful and comprehensive evidence gathering. We have not taken the process or the decision lightly. At each stage, we created opportunities for discourse and debate, and I thank everyone who contributed to the process. At the same time, since the moratorium in 2013, no unconventional oil and gas extraction has taken place in Scotland. The contrast with the gung-ho approach that is being taken in England could not be more stark.

It is right that this Government sought independent expert scientific advice, and that we took the time that was needed to assess the evidence and to seek the views of the people of Scotland. We have now reached a position that will provide the clarity that is sought by communities and industry alike, and which will allow ministers to implement a robust policy—which is that the Scottish Government does not support the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland.