Scotland has put Westminster’s plans to frack the country on hold, with a moratorium. Following a full public consultation, they will then decide on whether or not to ban fracking in Scotland. There are no restrictions on how long the consultation period could last and they plan to consider all unconventional oil extraction, including coal bed methane.
Scotland’s energy minister Fergus Ewing announced the decision in the Scottish Parliament, Wednesday 28th January. He said, “The moratorium will be welcomed by communities across Scotland who have been alarmed by the gung-ho stance taken by the Westminster Government.” It is crucial for the Scottish people to hold the SNP to their word after the general election and have an extensive discussion, following the New York model which looked at all of the health and safety and environmental risks and dangers.
Ewing criticised Westminster for its dash for shale gas despite the mounting body of evidence about the dangers. After their inquiry on Monday 26th January, a cross party group of MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee proposed an amendment in the Infrastructure Bill, calling for a moratorium. Ewing condemned Scottish Labour for abstaining from voting on the amendment. The EAC’s report said fracking would increase Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions and poses “significant localised environmental risks to public health.” Hundreds of people descended on Parliament to protest against the amendments within the Infrastructure Bill that would pave the way for fracking. In the official public consultation, 99% of respondents said they objected to changes in tresspass law that would give fracking companies the right to drill under homes without permission. Nevertheless, the government and Labour opposition sided with the 1% and, with just two hours allocated to debate the Bill, the speaker did not give MPs the opportunity to vote on or even discuss this contentious amendment.
The most recent example of Westminster’s hardnosed determination is a leaked letter written by George Osborne, which revealed he is more concerned that fracking regulations appeared robust to the media, rather than actually being robust. In this letter, he requested that senior ministers make interventions to fast track the industry as a “personal priority”.
Scotland has recently received devolved power to decide on fracking. Plaid Cymru asked that the Welsh Assembly be given the same democratic authority. Criticising the Labour-led Welsh Assembly, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr MP Jonathan Edwards said: “What is good enough for Scotland is also good enough for Wales. They are just rolling over and allowing Welsh resources to be plundered for Westminster and City of London profit.”
The Scottish Parliament’s decision to listen to its people stems from growing opposition to fracking. Political engagement in Scotland has been galvanised by the referendum, which represented a two-year long public discussion on what sort of society Scotland should have, and encouraged 95% of the public to register to vote. Yet the plans to frack Scotland and sell the licences was only made public after the referendum vote. In reaction, the same organisations and collective groups drawn together by the referendum are now focusing on fracking. One example is the Radical Independence Campaign, who held a national conference in November, selling out a venue with over 3,000 delegates – about the same number as the UK-wide Liberal Democrat conference.
The result of this conference was a People’s Vow, a call for a fairer Scotland delivered by RIC co-founder Cat Boyd. She told the packed conference, “We will not let anyone sell off our natural resources to the highest bidder. We demand that the Scottish government use planning laws to stop fracking. We will engage in a campaign of direct action against any company that tries to undermine our capacity for a civilised, Green future.”
The momentum against fracking in Scotland in many ways appears to replicate the State of New York. After years of public debate, New York decided last month to implement an outright ban on fracking, a decision based on the industry’s significant public health risks. In the near future, Scotland may soon be added to the growing list of places where fracking does not threaten the air and water; a list that already includes France, Quebec, Germany, Bulgaria, Luxemburg, and the Czech Republic.
With opposition growing across the rest of the UK, this begs the question, how far are the whole of these Isles from joining that list? In the meantime, the SNP should define the plans for this public consultation and outline mechanisms that can ensure the discussion allows participatory engagement from the whole Scottish public around all the economic, environmental and health issues associated with fracking.