MSPs vote to endorse Scottish fracking 'ban'

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFracking is carried out in some other parts of the UK, but has been "indefinitely" blocked in Scotland

MSPs have voted to endorse the Scottish government's "effective ban" on fracking north of the border.

Ministers announced earlier in the month that the controversial method of oil and gas extraction "cannot and will not take place in Scotland".

The Tories opposed the move, while Labour and the Scottish Greens said more could be done to strengthen it.

After energy minister Paul Wheelhouse insisted the ban was "sufficiently robust", MSPs backed him by 91 to 28.

The government accepted Labour and Green amendments which asked to incorporate the prohibition into future National Planning Frameworks, in order to strengthen it.

However, Mr Wheelhouse said there was no need to take up parliament's time passing a specific anti-fracking bill.

The SNP MSP said the vote was a "clear endorsement" of the government's decision, adding: "The Scottish government has said 'no' to fracking in Scotland. Today the Scottish Parliament did the right thing for Scotland and endorsed our position."

Shale gas is currently processed in Scotland, at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, but has always been shipped in from abroad in light of a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing imposed by the government in January 2015.

Mr Wheelhouse announced to MSPs before Holyrood's October recess that with 99% of consultation responses opposed to fracking, the government "will not support the development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland".

However, ministers had pledged to "seek the endorsement of parliament" for the move, leading to the debate and vote at Holyrood.

image captionPaul Wheelhouse said it would not be necessary to "tie up" parliamentary time laying the ban down in law

The moratorium was enforced through local planning regulations, with councils instructed not to consider applications for unconventional oil and gas developments, and Mr Wheelhouse said these directions would now continue "indefinitely".

However, some opposition parties claimed this block could be overturned easily in future, simply by ministers writing to councils, and want the prohibition strengthened.

Scottish Labour's Claudia Beamish, who has tabled a members' bill which would put down a fracking ban in law, said she welcomed the "indefinite extension of the moratorium" - but said the proposals "do not go far enough".

She called for an "extra layer of protection" by incorporating the ban in the government's next National Planning Framework - a call echoed by the Scottish Greens. Ms Beamish said if this was agreed, she would withdraw her members' bill.

'End of story'

The Greens had also welcomed the move in principle, but agreed that the government had "merely extended its current moratorium".

MSP Mark Ruskell, who said fracking was the "toxic fag-end of the fossil fuel age", said adding the prohibition to the National Planning Framework would help make the ban "legally watertight".

Mr Wheelhouse insisted the method proposed was "robust and effective", saying: "I am confident that the position we have adopted is sufficiently robust to allow control of unconventional oil and gas development in line with our stated position.

"The pursuit of unnecessary legislation would tie up this parliament's time in the face of other significant issues such as Brexit."

image copyrightPA
image captionSome campaigners have called for the government to go further with its prohibition on fracking

Analysis by BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor

Of all the public functions undertaken by government, both central and local, planning is perhaps the most easily neglected. Except, that is, when it impinges directly upon an individual or a community.

Then the discourse can be frenzied as people feel that their territory, their rights or their livelihood may be affected.

For example, I have seldom seen more passion engendered in the public interest than over the topic of windfarms.

Rightly or wrongly - and I am certainly not here to judge - folk get mightily exercised over such proposed developments and are wont to express their views in forthright fashion.

Ditto fracking - or hydraulic fracturing, the process whereby oil and gas reserves are extracted from shale rock by deploying drilling and high-pressure water.

The debate over this topic in Scotland has been intense and protracted.

Both Labour and the Greens backed the motion for the debate, which asked that parliament "endorses the government's decision to impose an immediate and effective ban" on fracking "using its devolved powers".

With the Lib Dems also supporting the move, only Conservative MSPs spoke out against the decision.

Party economy spokesman Murdo Fraser tabled an amendment which "disagrees with the Scottish government's position of imposing a ban" on fracking, calling it "an ill-thought out decision which completely disregards scientific evidence".

He accused the government of "sheer hypocrisy" for ruling out fracking in Scotland, while continuing to import fracked gas from elsewhere.

He said: "In effect, what the SNP is saying is that it's happy to import fracked gas from anywhere in the world at great environmental cost and where the safeguards may be much less, but it doesn't want it in our back yard.

"A ban is bad for Scotland, bad for jobs, bad for our economy and bad for the environment."

image copyrightBBC Sport
image captionThe first shipment of shale gas from the US arrived at Grangemouth in September 2016

In the final votes, Mr Fraser's amendment was rejected, while those from the three other opposition parties were accepted.

The SNP, Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems then voted in favour of the amended motion, which the Conservatives opposed - apart from Dumfriesshire MSP Oliver Mundell, who abstained on the amendments and then voted with the government.

A number of business groups have also been strongly critical of the government over the move, with Ineos, the firm which operates the Grangemouth refinery, claiming that it could see "large numbers of Scottish workers leaving the country".

During the debate, Labour MSP Neil Findlay claimed that Ineos was "not well known for philanthropic behaviour", claiming the firm had been "holding the country to ransom" by threatening to move jobs.

UK Onshore Oil and Gas said the decision was "based on dogma, not evidence or geopolitical reality", while the GMB Scotland trade union said it was "mired in dishonesty and "an abandonment of the national interest".

However, green groups welcomed the decision as "excellent news", with WWF Scotland saying that "climate science is clear" that fossil fuels should be "left in the ground".

Friends of the Earth Scotland called it "fantastic news for communities and the environment" - but also challenged ministers to "go even further", saying the current proposal "falls short" of a full legislative ban.

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