In this week’s Fracking Week in Parliament:
The Scottish Government announces a ban on underground coal gasification and progress on its consultation on fracking. Read the full statement and questions here.
Thanks to www.theyworkforyou.com for the transcript
6 October 2016
Underground Coal Gasification Review
Statement by Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, SNP, South Scotland
This Government is taking a clear and consistent approach to understanding the potential role for emerging technologies that could be used to further develop Scotland’s hydrocarbon resources. That approach is one of caution while we gather and consider evidence on those new technologies. A precautionary approach is the right approach, and it is one that has been widely supported by communities, industry and other interested parties.
I am aware that there have been some recent examples of misunderstandings regarding the different technologies involved. Therefore, it would be useful to take a moment to reiterate our position on unconventional oil and gas, before I turn to the separate issue of underground coal gasification.
On 28 January 2015, the Scottish Government put in place a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas, which means that no such activities can currently take place in Scotland. That moratorium covered hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is often referred to, and coal-bed methane. The moratorium followed the publication of a comprehensive report by our independent expert scientific panel on unconventional oil and gas. I encourage members to look at the report to refresh their memories on its detail. The report recognised that, although there was a considerable body of international research and evidence on unconventional oil and gas, there were gaps in key areas of evidence, including on climate change impacts, public health and decommissioning.
The moratorium on unconventional oil and gas ensures that no fracking takes place while we explore in detail those and other issues—like traffic and economic impacts—before holding a full and comprehensive public consultation. I can confirm today that the independent projects that we commissioned to examine unconventional oil and gas in more depth are nearing completion. As was widely reported at the time, there were delays to commissioning the transport research project and, despite acting swiftly to resolve those issues, that sequence of events has had an inevitable effect on the timetable for completing and publishing our research. I assure members that the final project reports—which will form one of the world’s most wide-ranging investigations into unconventional oil and gas—will be published in full as soon as possible after recess.
As members are no doubt aware, there are strongly held views around Scotland on unconventional oil and gas, and real concerns in communities. We must recognise, listen to and respond to those concerns. That is why the publication of the research reports will be followed by an extensive public consultation that will take place in winter 2016-17 as planned. The consultation will give people in Scotland the opportunity to consider, scrutinise, debate and set out their views on those technologies and the evidence. Given the seriousness of the issue, that is the right and proper way to proceed. To make a decision now would be to deny the people of Scotland a voice on that crucial issue.
I turn to a different technology, and one that is also very much a matter of interest to communities around Scotland, particularly around the Firth of Forth. Underground coal gasification—or UCG—is a process for converting coal into gas via combustion, while still underground. The technology requires two wells to be drilled: an injection well through which gases are pumped to create high-pressure combustion of the coal, and a production well through which the resultant syngas can be brought to the surface. Syngas is a mixture of gases—methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide—which can be used as fuel or as a feedstock for chemical products.
Unlike hydraulic fracturing or coal-bed methane, there are very few examples of UCG technology being used commercially anywhere in the world. In recent years, however, there has been interest in deploying the technology in Scotland and, through the Coal Authority, the UK Government has issued coal mining licences for potential UCG sites in the Firth of Forth. I stress that no planning or environmental consents for UCG have been issued in Scotland. Planning and environmental protection are fully devolved matters and both consents are necessary before a development could begin.
On 8 October 2015, the Scottish Government put in place a specific moratorium on UCG—separate to the moratorium on unconventional oil and gas—using the planning powers available to the Scottish Government, so that evidence on that technology could be gathered and considered. To develop that evidence base, we asked Professor Campbell Gemmell, professor of environment research, policy, regulation and governance at the University of Glasgow, to undertake an independent examination of UCG. I advise members that Professor Gemmell’s report has now been published and copies are available at the rear of the chamber. I thank Professor Gemmell for his work and for preparing a confident and comprehensive assessment of the technology.
The report, which has been informed by literature and through in-depth interviews with academics, industry, non-governmental organisations, community groups and regulators, notes that there are substantial coal resources in Scotland that could potentially be exploited by UCG technologies, with the greatest reserves of coal being in central Scotland, Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire and east Fife. The commercial value of those reserves, if utilised for UCG development, would of course depend on gas market prices and competition, the quality and volume of gas, consistency of throughput and other economic factors.
On potential impacts from UCG, Professor Gemmell’s report makes a number of observations that I believe raise serious concerns over the future of this industry in Scotland. First, there are very few comprehensive or peer-reviewed studies that examine the environmental and health impacts. Where impacts have been documented, they have been from trials rather than from full commercial-scale activity.
Where the industry has operated, typically at a pilot or trial scale, there is emerging evidence of significant environmental impacts including soil contamination and exposures of workers to toxins resulting from major operational failures. A number of failures in Australia have resulted in prosecutions being brought. Professor Gemmell also raises concerns that the current regulatory framework is insufficiently clear and would need to be improved to protect the environment, public health and workers’ health and safety.
I turn to the important issue of climate change. Professor Gemmell notes that UCG produces a variety of greenhouse gases, many of which are without current viable market outlets. He concludes:
“Climate change and decarbonisation targets would be very seriously impacted by unmitigated releases of UCG GHGs [greenhouse gases if operated at scale, making the achievement of current or stronger commitments much more difficult if not impossible.”
That would particularly be the case where gas production was not combined with a suitable removal, storage, offset or compensation method—for example, carbon capture and storage.
Professor Gemmell concludes that a step change in the availability of robust data and science would need to take place before the technology could be reliably assessed. In his words, a “very substantial transformation in available data” would be needed. In conclusion, Professor Gemmell states: “it would be wise to consider an approach to this issue based upon a precautionary presumption”. He states: “it would appear logical … to progress towards a ban”.
Having considered the report in detail, the Scottish Government’s view is that UCG poses numerous and serious environmental risks, and on that basis the Scottish Government cannot support this technology. Accordingly, UCG will have no place in Scotland’s energy mix at this time.
I acknowledge the interest that there has been in the technology in Scotland and I am confident that any companies with an interest in UCG would aim to operate to the highest standards. I also acknowledge the shortage of reliable information that Professor Gemmell was able to identify. I am grateful to him for the lengths that he went to, which ensured that he reached out to a broad spectrum of interested parties and community groups both in Scotland and worldwide.
I will therefore ensure that there is sufficient opportunity for views and evidence to be brought forward and considered as we develop and consult on our energy strategy for Scotland, which will set out an energy mix for the future that does not include underground coal gasification. Today, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy setting out the Scottish Government’s concerns. I have asked him not to grant any further licences for UCG in Scotland and to revoke all existing licences.
I understand that the UK Government is also considering its position on UCG, and an announcement is due shortly. I expect that the Conservative members in the chamber may have thought to familiarise themselves with the position that is likely to emerge. However, it is a matter of great regret that this Parliament does not have the necessary powers over the licensing regime for UCG. The Scottish Government therefore intends to continue to use the planning powers that are available to us to ensure that UCG applications do not receive planning or environmental permission. I cannot predict what clean energy technologies may be available in the decades to come, but what is certain is that the coal resource will still be there.
The position on UCG that I have announced today is a clear validation of the evidence-based approach that this Government is taking. We live in a world where the pace and scale of technological innovation is increasing. That is a testament to our collective ingenuity and it must be supported and embraced wherever possible. However, when necessary, we must be ready to pause so that we can consider and interrogate the evidence and be ready to act accordingly, which I believe we have done today.
Questions to Paul Wheelhouse on underground coal gasification
Question by Alexander Burnett, Conservative Energy Spokesperson, Aberdeenshire West
I thank the minister for advance notice of his statement. However, along with many oil workers who are trying to find re-employment, I am deeply disappointed by the stance that the Scottish Government is taking on UCG today. Its taking that position two weeks before the SNP conference is no surprise, but it marks yet another missed opportunity for the SNP.
It is evident that we must switch to a low-carbon economy, and UCG is certainly one of the fuels that we can use to do that. It is perhaps a shocking indictment that the Government’s own expert, Professor Campbell Gemmell, writes in his report: “The regulatory framework is potentially adequate but is currently fragmented, insufficiently clear and does not fit well together for the ease of use by the operator, for the integrated protection of the environment or for the reassurance of the public.”
Does the minister agree that one of the main reasons why UCG cannot go ahead is because the regulatory framework in Scotland is not good enough? Whose fault is that?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
It is very interesting that Mr Burnett has changed his tone on the issue markedly since his performance, if I can call it that, on “Good Morning Scotland” this morning. The presenter asked him: “The Scottish Government has gone through a process here, a moratorium, an independent report, is that not the right way to proceed?”
In response, Mr Burnett said: “I think so but at the end of the day when you have a report you have to listen to the scientific advice you are given and we don’t believe the Scottish Government is doing that.”
What are we doing other than listening to the scientific evidence that says that the UCG industry cannot safely be deployed in Scotland?
On Mr Burnett’s point about the oil industry, he cannot seriously question the Scottish Government’s commitment to the oil and gas industry. We are doing extensive work through our oil and gas jobs task force, and I am sure that he is aware of the transition training fund to help workers from the oil and gas industry into alternative employment. We are doing everything that we can in that regard.
Mr Burnett picked up on an issue on which he obviously had to change his script—I presume after consulting his colleagues south of the border. On his point about the low-carbon economy and regulation, there is no point in putting in place regulation for an industry that is not going to be acceptable because of its impact on the environment, and the scientific evidence proves that the industry is not acceptable at this time. Professor Gemmell has recommended that we move towards a ban. Perhaps Mr Burnett should listen to him.
Question by Claudia Beamish, Labour environment, climate change and land reform spokesperson, South Scotland
I thank the minister for prior sight of the statement and Professor Gemmell’s “Independent Review of Underground Coal Gasification.” The statement highlights concerns about “soil contamination and exposures of workers to toxins resulting from major operational failures”, and a great deal more. Concerns about climate change are also recognised in the statement and in the report. It is a welcome first step that the Scottish Government “intends to continue to use the planning powers that are available to us to ensure that UCG applications do not receive planning or environmental permission”, and that UCG will not be included in the energy strategy.
The report recognises the importance of the precautionary principle and states that “it would appear logical … to progress towards a ban”.
Surely a similar precautionary principle applies to all forms of unconventional oil and gas extraction. The Parliament has already raised concerns about unconventional oil and gas extraction. Will the Scottish Government now respect the will of the Scottish Parliament and introduce an outright ban immediately on all forms of unconventional gas extraction?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
First, I welcome Claudia Beamish’s welcome of the steps that we have taken today—that is positive. I understand the position that the Labour Party has taken on the issue and I am not challenging its right to do so. However, I gently put it to Claudia Beamish and her colleagues in the Labour Party that we have proven today that we can take a sensible precautionary approach. There is a moratorium in place that prevents any activity involving hydraulic fracturing from happening in Scotland while we do the necessary scientific research to understand the impacts of the industry. The expert panel revealed that there were some significant gaps in our understanding—I am sure that Claudia Beamish recognises that. Those gaps need to be filled, and we are going through that process.
I have set out today the rough timescale for the publication of our reports, and we have committed to having an extensive public consultation thereafter to allow the people of Scotland to have a say on the matter. That is very important. The evidence that Professor Gemmell has set out is extremely clear in the case of UCG technology, but we are trying to deal separately with two separate technologies on the basis that we have set out to Parliament previously and which I have repeated today.
I give Claudia Beamish an undertaking that we will take very seriously the scientific evidence that comes forward on those technologies but will also consult the public. We will give stakeholders, from environmental NGOs through to the industry and the wider public, the chance to have a say on that evidence and to augment it where necessary, or to criticise it where they feel that that is justified.
Question by Angus MacDonald, Scottish National Party, Falkirk East
The vast majority of my constituents in Falkirk East will warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s decision on UCG.
Clearly, opening up any new fronts in fossil fuel extraction is bad for the climate. Only this week we heard again about renewables achieving new records, with the news from WWF Scotland that, for two days in September, wind power generated the equivalent required to meet all Scotland’s electricity needs for the day.
Does the minister agree with WWF and the Committee on Climate Change that we must build on our renewable electricity revolution and expand it to other sectors such as heat and transport?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I very much agree with the sentiment behind Mr MacDonald’s question. As I am sure he knows, we plan to publish a draft energy strategy by the early part of next year—by January, I hope—to coincide with the delivery of the climate change plan. The two strategies are closely integrated.
We seek to have a balanced energy mix in Scotland, and it will be no secret that this Government believes that our future relies on a low-carbon, decarbonised electricity generation system, and that is where we are putting a considerable amount of effort. We will set out, technology by technology, what approach we believe that we can take to pursue that low-carbon future and to support the growth of renewables.
Before I am criticised by Conservative members, it is worth saying that we very much believe in the future of our oil and gas industry as a traditional industry. We have to achieve a low-carbon future, but we know that oil and gas will be important for many years to come and will supply feedstock for the petrochemical industry and other industries.
I reassure Mr MacDonald that we take the development of our renewable energy industry extremely seriously, and we challenge the UK Government to back that industry with appropriate routes to market for onshore wind and tidal energy and other technologies, such as pumped hydro, to ensure that we can maximise the opportunities in Scotland.
Question by Murdo Fraser, Conservative, Mid Scotland and Fife
Until recently, the Scottish Government’s website said: “alternative mining technologies, such as underground coal gasification, are attracting interest both globally and from a number of developers in Scotland. The Scottish Government are supportive of such innovative technologies which offer the potential for a secure, economic and low carbon energy store.”
Indeed, in April 2015, the minister’s predecessor, Fergus Ewing, said: “We should never close our minds to the potential opportunities of new technologies.”
Does the minister recognise the dismay of many in industry that the open mind of Fergus Ewing has been replaced with his closed mind?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
It is nice to see that Murdo Fraser is being as charitable as ever. On the comment on the website that Murdo Fraser mentioned, I would say that we have taken a genuinely technology-neutral stance on the issue. We have looked at the technology and my predecessor, Fergus Ewing, whom the member accuses of having an open mind, commissioned the very research that I am reporting on today, which concluded that this technology cannot be safely deployed at this time in Scotland. Because of that, this Government is taking forward an energy strategy that has no place for underground coal gasification in the energy mix. I think that that is a reasonable approach to take.
The results of the research that was commissioned by Fergus Ewing and reported on by me might be unappealing to Murdo Fraser, given his predisposition towards fossil fuels, but I challenge him to challenge Professor Gemmell’s research, which is conclusive about the risks that underground coal gasification poses to the environment and to the health and safety of the workers involved, with the risk of explosions, both underground and on the surface. We have to take account of those matters and, in this case, we have decided that the industry is not an acceptable one in Scotland at the moment. However, as I said, the resource will remain where it is. The coal will still be there and if safe, clean technologies that do not damage the environment are developed in the future, it can still be exploited.
Question by John Mason, Scottish National Party, Glasgow Shettleston
The minister referred to the energy strategy. Is he convinced that we can generate the energy and jobs that we want and need, allow people to heat their homes and safeguard the environment? Can we get a balance between all of those issues?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I very much agree with Mr Mason that with our energy strategy, we are taking a whole-system approach to Scotland’s energy use and energy supply. Crucially, we will be considering how we can reduce demand. We will also address fuel poverty and help individuals to have a more sustainable future and deal with the financial implications of rising costs of energy. We will deliver, as well, on our climate change policies, which are about trying to ensure that we meet our ambitious targets for 2020 and 2050.
As the member will be aware, the First Minister has signalled that we seek to increase the ambition of this Government to tackle climate change. That makes it all the more important that we take into account the impact of an industry such as the one that we are talking about on climate change targets. Without the potential for mitigation through CCS or other approaches, that impact is another significant reason why we cannot pursue that industry at this time.
I give the member an assurance that issues such as district heating and heat mapping are very much in our minds. Taking forward Scotland’s energy efficiency programme as a national infrastructure project will enable us to tackle fuel poverty and reduce emissions from our domestic sector.
Question by Claire Baker, Labour, Mid Scotland and Fife
I first asked the Scottish Government to ban UCG in 2013, and I have been raising concerns about the issue ever since. The previous energy secretary said that it was not possible for the Scottish Government to rule out UCG, so I am glad that the current energy minister takes a very different view. I commend him for taking the decision today to rule out UCG as part of Scotland’s energy mix. Is he planning to issue revised and appropriate planning guidance to local authorities on the back of today’s decision?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
Issues to do with planning policy are a matter for the relevant minister, so it is not within my gift to do that. However, I will make sure that the point is raised with my colleagues.
Given a firm statement in our energy strategy and the fact that we have made it clear that we are not going to issue any planning permissions or environmental consents, it would be impractical for a project to be developed in Scotland. We have legal constraints on us, as the licensing is still undertaken by the UK Government, but we have made an appeal in the letter that was sent today to Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for the existing licences to be revoked and for new licences not to be issued out of respect for the decision that we have made today. I will make sure that the matter of planning policy is raised with my colleagues.
Question by Joan McAlpine, Scottish National Party, South Scotland
I, too, welcome the minister’s statement. The UK Coal Authority has already issued licences for underground coal gasification beneath the Solway at Gretna, but I am pleased to say that the company that received those licences has now abandoned its plans and has folded. Does today’s announcement mean that my constituents in the area can be reassured that underground coal gasification will not now take place under the Solway in future?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
That is an important point. As I outlined in my statement, the Scottish Government intends to use its powers to block UCG activity in Scotland. I have written to the secretary of state, making clear the Scottish Government’s view that the UK Government should not issue further licences for UCG in Scotland and that existing licences should be revoked. That would mean that no UCG activity could take place. The licence that was issued for the Solway Firth is due to expire in December 2016 and I understand that the licence holder, Five-Quarter Energy Holdings Ltd, has ceased to trade in the UK. I trust that those actions will reassure the member.
Question by Maurice Golden, Conservative, West Scotland
Given the fact that climate change is a global issue that requires global solutions, can the minister assure the chamber that this is not a parochial decision by categorically stating that Scotland will not import gas that has been obtained via this method, now and in the future, from anywhere else in the world?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I encourage Mr Golden to have a conversation with Mr Fraser, because there seems to be a dichotomy in the Conservative Party on the future of Grangemouth. On the one hand, we have a member praising the importing of gas to Scotland to secure the future of Grangemouth while, on the other hand, we have a member criticising that approach. These are commercial decisions that are taken by Ineos, which is a major employer in the area. The Government supports the Grangemouth plant, recognising its important role in the local economy, and believes that those matters are best left to the company. I point out to the member that Jim Ratcliffe, whom Mr Golden will recognise as a key figure in Ineos, has said that Grangemouth has at least 20 years of life in it with the importing of gas to Scotland from overseas. That is a commercial decision that the company has taken.
Question by Colin Beattie, Scottish National Party, Midlothian North and Musselburgh
Does the minister share my astonishment that the Scottish Government has repeatedly been criticised by the Tories for taking advice from a wide range of independent experts, for pledging to publish that advice in full and for promising to give the people of Scotland a chance to make their views heard?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I absolutely do. We have been—and are the only political party to be so— consistently clear on our position on unconventional oil and gas.
I disagree with Michael Gove, a colleague of the Conservatives, who said during the European Union referendum that people in this country had had enough of experts—and look where that got him. Maybe the country would not be in such a big mess given the impact of what is likely to fall on us as a result of Brexit if Conservative ministers—of which, at the time, Michael Gove was one—had listened more to the experts.
The people of Scotland are smart enough to see the value of seeking out evidence and interrogating it before coming to a decision. We are committed to allowing the public to have their say on this crucial issue. I would challenge the Conservatives on why they are afraid to listen to the people of Scotland’s views on these important technologies and to hear the people’s thoughts on their future.
Mark Ruskell, Green, Mid Scotland and Fife
I warmly welcome the report and its conclusions. It validates not only a robust science-led approach, but the concerns of communities around the Firth of Forth, on the Solway and across Scotland. Their concerns, which had been rubbished by an aggressive industry over many years, are now endorsed by this Parliament; their voices have been heard.
Now that the minister has identified the use of planning powers as the route to a permanent ban, when will the Scottish Government amend the Scottish planning policy and the national planning framework to embed the decision into policy in a legally watertight way? I heard the minister’s answer to Claire Baker about embedding it into the energy strategy. I also note that he wrote to the heads of planning in 2015. That is not enough. The minister needs to explain how he will embed the ban into planning policy.
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
That is a very important question, and I acknowledge that Claire Baker made the same point. Today, the Government has announced its policy decision on the future of UCG. We have committed—I mentioned this in my statement—to undertake a strategic environmental assessment as part of our energy strategy, where we will set out that we are not supporting this technology. Obviously, we have to wait for that to be concluded. We are clear about our position, but we have to go through due process. Once that is concluded, the energy strategy has relevance in relation to planning decisions and matters, but I will take forward Mr Ruskell and Claire Baker’s points and ensure that we can give clarity to both members and any other members who are interested in the issue.
Question by Clare Adamson, Scottish National Party, Motherwell and Wishaw
As Mr Ruskell and Angus MacDonald have mentioned, I am sure that communities on both sides of the Forth will be relieved to hear the minister provide such clear assurances on underground coal gasification and on his willingness to let the people of Scotland’s voice be heard. Will the minister give an assurance that their views will be taken fully into account when also considering hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—should that happen in Scotland?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
Our consultation on unconventional oil and gas, which will take place on schedule this 2016-17 winter will, I promise, be a comprehensive exercise that will take on board a range of views from the public and allow scientific evidence to be presented both for and against the relevant technology. We will give everyone who has an interest in the issue an opportunity to express their view. Consultation with the people of Scotland will be a key element of our understanding of the issues around the future of both technologies. I give a commitment to the member that we will be listening very carefully to the people of Scotland’s views.
Question by Jackie Baillie, Labour, Dumbarton
I welcome the minister’s announcement, which recognises the significant risk to the environment, communities and UCG workers. What preparations has the minister undertaken for a legal challenge, should there be one? What is his expected timeline for a UK Government response, confirming that it will revoke the licences?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I do not want to be churlish about the UK Government, but my expectations on the timing of its reply are coloured by the slow pace of its replies to me on other matters. This is a high-profile matter and, with the support of Conservative members here to seek clarity on the issue, I am sure that we can get a quick reply from Mr Clark.
I highlight that we are going through what we believe to be the due process. Campbell Gemmell’s evidence gathering has been thorough, we have read the report and we have come to a decision about the technology’s future. Given that we are not proposing to bring in a new technology, our suggested approach is to make the decision clear in the energy strategy and to take the matter forward through the strategic environmental assessment associated with that strategy. That gives a potential route for people who want to complain about the approach to make their views known. Once the energy strategy is adopted and finalised, our position will be ratified, assuming that there are no show-stoppers during the SEA process. I am happy to keep the member informed as we undertake that journey.
Question by Willie Coffey, Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley
There appears to have been confusion among some Tory MSPs recently about the difference between underground coal gasification—UCG—and fracking. Does the minister share my hope that the forthcoming publication of the expert reports on unconventional oil and gas will lead to a better-informed debate in the chamber and throughout the country?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
Willie Coffey makes an important point. There has been a lot of confusion in some quarters of the media and the chamber on the different technologies. That is why I took some time in my statement to try to make clear the differences between them and the fact that we have different procedures in place to ensure that we gather the scientific evidence.
In the case of the work that was done by the expert panel on unconventional oil and gas, some significant issues needed to be addressed on the health impact, decommissioning and climate change impacts. That required us to commission and receive reports. I have yet to see the reports myself but I will do so in the near future and will be able to report back to the Parliament on the findings.
However, we were able to address underground coal gasification separately through Professor Campbell Gemmell. There is far less evidence of its deployment on anything other than a trial or pilot basis, as I said in my statement. Therefore, we were able come to a clear conclusion on the basis of the analysis that Professor Gemmell presented to us.
I take Mr Coffey’s point entirely. Once we have published the reports, I hope that the process will help to educate members about the differences between the technologies and, crucially, inform the public and invite them to give their view on the future of those technologies.
Question by Elaine Smith, Labour, Central Scotland
I welcome the Government’s decision to stop UCG based on Professor Gemmell’s review. I note that, in his statement, the minister also mentioned fracking, which is of concern to many constituents in Central Scotland. Of course, the Parliament voted to ban it. Is he, like me, concerned that it has been given the go-ahead in Lancashire today, particularly given the previous earth tremors in Blackpool? When will his consultation on fracking close and when can we expect a Government decision?
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
The decision on Lancashire is obviously a matter for the UK Government. I contrast that with the approach that we have taken to date of looking at scientific evidence and reaching a considered conclusion on UCG, as well as the approach that we are taking in regard to hydraulic fracturing—fracking—and coalbed methane, on which we will gather scientific evidence and then consult the public on their view. I dare say that the community that is affected in Lancashire might not have been fully consulted in the process.
We have consulted all the stakeholders—the industry, the communities and the NGO community—on our thinking on the timing of the reports. We will try to avoid compressing the consultation due to the Christmas period. Therefore, we will choose the timing carefully so that people will have as long as possible to submit their views. We will also try proactively to engage community councils and other stakeholders to ensure that access to the consultation is as open as we can possibly make it and will use existing Government portals to promote the consultation online.
I assure Elaine Smith that we are doing what we can to prepare for a thorough consultation in the expectation that there will be a lot of interest in it throughout the country, not just in the affected communities, and to ensure that we take on board all views as best we can. I assure her that we will keep the Parliament informed about timing and will do our best to ensure that nobody is unaware of the consultation.
Question by Graham Simpson, Conservative, Central Scotland
I have a practical question for the minister on planning. I was not sure about his answers on the matter. If an application were to come before a local authority, which granted it, what would the Government’s response be?
Reply by Paul Wheehouse
I will put on record our position on that to help members, because I appreciate that Mr Simpson is the third member to ask a similar question on certainty.
We are saying that the Scottish Government does not support the development of a UCG industry in Scotland. As I said in response to the second such question that was asked, the forthcoming energy strategy will set out an energy mix for the future and the Scottish Government’s preferred position is that underground coal gasification should have no place in those plans.
As I said, today we have written to Greg Clark on the issue of licences, and I hope that that is progressed as quickly as possible to prevent new licences from being issued—if no licences are issued, that will remove the need to even consider planning issues—and to revoke the existing licences so that there are no existing planning issues to resolve, either. In the absence of any licences being issued, there will be no need for the Government to deal with any planning applications.
No planning or environmental consents for UCG have been issued in Scotland. Such matters are fully devolved, and both consents are necessary before a development can begin. The Scottish Government will continue to use its powers to prevent UCG from taking place in Scotland. However, I take Graham Simpson’s point. By coming to the chamber, through the Scottish Parliament information centre or by other means, we will make sure that members are briefed on the precise approach that we take to stop that happening.
Question by Liam McArthur, Liberal Democrat, Orkney Islands
I thank the minister for advance sight of the statement. I very much welcome the decision that he has announced today, and I put on record my thanks to Campbell Gemmell and his colleagues for the arduous work that they have done over a number of months in producing what is a very helpful report for the Parliament.
In response to Elaine Smith, the minister went into a little more detail on the consultation on fracking. I understand why he might not be able to put a timeframe on that, but will he explain what weighting, if any, will be given to the responses that come through in that consultation? As he has acknowledged, views on the issue are extremely polarised. The concern might be that it might just be a numbers game, or that the consultation might almost be prejudged. Any advice that he can offer on the way in which the consultation and submissions to it will be handled would be very helpful.
Reply by Paul Wheelhouse
I am happy to address that. As I said, we commit to giving more detail to colleagues across the chamber as soon as we can.
Will it just be a numbers game? I do not think so—I do not think that that would be appropriate—but we will obviously take account of the strength of support for or opposition to the technology. That is an important dimension among the communities that might be most affected by such developments. We must also look at the merits of the arguments for and against and try to take a considered view.
I do not want to prejudge how we will go about that process, but we will provide clarity so that those who take part in the consultation know how they can best contribute to it and have an impact on it. We will take into account the quality and the level of detail of the information that is supplied. We expect to receive a mixture of individual responses from a large number of people who are pro or anti the industry, submissions from environmental NGOs and evidence from the industry that it believes is pertinent to its case. As I said, we are trying to be as open as possible to allow as many people who wish to take part in the exercise to do so.
That will have resource implications, so it is difficult to be precise about the timing of publication, but we are trying to run the consultation in the context of delivering our energy strategy, and I think that Mr McArthur is aware of the timescales for that.
NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
4 October 2016
Debate on executive openness and transparency
Extract of speech by Steven Agnew, Green, North Down
I alleged a breach [of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s code of conduct], for example, when the First Minister, who was then the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, licensed an area for fracking. It turned out that her husband owned land within that licensed area, and I argued that that should have been declared. She argued that such a declaration was not required, and I argued that there had been a breach of the code. What is left is suspicion among the general public. Arlene Foster, the First Minister, who was the then Enterprise Minister, can declare her innocence and I can allege her guilt, but we never get a conclusion or satisfaction.
If I am making a spurious allegation, that should be brought to light. There should be an independent process, and I should be put in my place and told, “That was a scurrilous accusation”. Equally, if a Minister has acted inappropriately, there should be an independent, transparent process of investigation. Ministers should be held to account, as Members are, for their actions in the role as Minister. What is the point of having a ministerial code of conduct if there is no mechanism for investigating breaches of it? It is not worth the paper that it is written on.
In a separate intervention, he said:
When Arlene Foster issued a licence for fracking in Fermanagh, there was a public petition, which I presented to the Assembly, there were protests and there was huge public interest. The complaints that came to the Standards and Privileges Committee against Ministers were from members of the public. This is an issue of importance to the public.
Extract of speech by Edwin Poots, DUP, Lagan Valley
The Member has raised many environmental issues, and many of them I disagree with. I would much prefer that, if there were resources available here in Northern Ireland, we look at that and see whether we can use those resources for the population in Northern Ireland, as opposed to importing oil from regions in the Middle East and Africa and gas from Siberia and so forth, where, very often, much poorer environmental conditions apply. If you are looking at the global earth, it would be much better to do the thing right here than import it from somewhere else and ignore what is going on. Perhaps Mr Agnew will reflect that in his green policies. Is it just green here in Northern Ireland, or is it green elsewhere?