Call for national debate on fracking in Scotland


Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing has called for a "national debate" on fracking in a BBC Scotland interview.

The Scottish government is facing demands from environmental campaigners for a permanent ban on unconventional oil and gas extraction.

It follows Mr Ewing's announcement in January of a "moratorium" on fracking.

Mr Ewing told MSPs the temporary ban would remain in place until the Scottish government had carried out a full public consultation.

There will also be a public health assessment, planning guidance is to be strengthened and environmental regulations are to be reviewed.

In BBC Scotland Investigates: The War Over Fracking, to be broadcast on Wednesday night, Mr Ewing was asked about the likelihood of a permanent ban.

He said: "We should have a national debate about the topic, especially since we are to acquire, we hope, powers in respect of the unconventional oil and gas issue before very long.

"So this is the right time to have a national debate informed by evidence."

The minister is then asked: "If the Scottish public clearly says it doesn't want this, will that be enough for you to introduce a permanent ban?"

Mr Ewing replies: "Well, let's see what the debate comprises. I don't want to prejudge that debate."

The energy minister tells the programme: "Hydraulic fracturing has been carried out in the USA on a very large scale. But the central belt of Scotland is not North Dakota.

"It is different and we need to think how it will be, how it may be, applied to Scotland."

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Media captionTime-lapse footage of a huge shale gas storage tank being constructed at Ineos petrochemical plant in Grangemouth

The programme also heard from Ineos director, Tom Crotty, who said shale gas would have a crucial role to play in the future of the company's huge petrochemicals plant at Grangemouth.

Mr Crotty said: "We need to address a lot of misconceptions that have grown up over the last couple of years about this industry.

"We believe it is extremely safe and we have to persuade people of that."

One of Scotland's leading experts on fracking told the programme public confidence in the ability of the authorities to regulate the industry would be key.

Zoe Shipton, professor of geological engineering at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Scottish government's Independent Expert Panel on Unconventional Oil and Gas, said: "We know how to engineer the process so that it will minimise the risk of ground water, surface water contamination, unintended releases of methane and so on.

"But clearly, when you think about local communities there are real issues of trust."

The documentary also examines the impact fracking could have on the Scottish environment and on carbon emissions.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "In Scotland, we already produce seven times more fossil fuels than we use.

"Around the world we produce about five times more fossil fuels than we can possibly afford to burn if we're to avoid disastrous climate change.

"So the last thing we need anywhere, but particularly in Scotland, is new fossil fuels."

Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie said he believed many communities in Scotland would be "alarmed" at Mr Ewing's comments.

He added: "Not only is the SNP's energy minister still talking about this dangerous industry as an opportunity, but he appears to be suggesting it will eventually take place."

Supporters of the unconventional oil and gas industry say burning shale gas, rather than coal, to produce electricity, could help reduce global carbon emissions.

Analysis by David Miller, BBC Scotland environment correspondent

Fergus Ewing believes the Scottish government's policy on fracking should be based on a "rational analysis" of the facts.

He's found himself at the heart of an increasingly heated and divisive debate.

And he knows it is an issue fraught with political dangers.

Industrial giants like Ineos believe any genuinely "rational analysis" will result in approval for unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland.

They say it could transform the prospects for Scottish manufacturing and argue the potential environmental impact has been exaggerated.

But Mr Ewing has a problem.

That's because environmental campaigners and the growing number of community-based anti-fracking groups believe his "rational analysis" of the facts will win the day for them.

They point to local environmental impacts and the over-arching issue of climate change.

Breathing space

The Scottish government's moratorium, announced in January, has given Mr Ewing much-needed breathing space.

It means the issue won't have to be settled until after next year's Scottish parliamentary elections.

But difficult decisions lie ahead for the minister.

Both sides in the war over fracking welcomed his announcement of the moratorium as an opportunity for them to make their case, and ultimately win the day.

The clock is ticking.

More than a century ago, the shale oil industry transformed the landscape of central Scotland.

Today, the shale bings of West Lothian still stand testament to that.

Sooner or later, we will have to decide if it is time to go frack to the future.

BBC Scotland Investigates: The War Over Fracking will be broadcast on BBC1 Scotland at 1930 on Wednesday 29 April. It will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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