The fracking moratorium in Scotland: what is it for? To gather new evidence?

Published: 29 January 2015
Author: Paul Cairney
The Scottish Government has announced a ‘moratorium’ on fracking to allow it to carry out ‘further research and a public consultation’. It plans to:
 
‘Undertake a full public consultation on unconventional oil and gas extraction
 
Commission a full public health impact assessment
 
Conduct further work into strengthen[ing] planning guidance
 
Look at further tightening of environmental regulation’
 
This is not a Green-style ‘keep it in the ground’ approach (as yesterday’s questioning made clear). Rather, it is an expression of further caution, reflecting some public concerns about the environmental consequences, a small amount of survey evidence which suggests that fracking would be unpopular (table 22), and the ramped-up electoral competition, in which it is competing with Scottish Labour to be the most anti-fracking-sounding-party amongst the parties that are tentatively pro-fracking (expect Energy Minister Fergus Ewing’s announcement to be followed quickly by a Scottish Labour announcement: ‘it’s about time you did what we have been recommending for ages’).
 
The Scottish Government has also reiterated that its approach is ‘considered and evidence-based’ – but what evidence can it reasonably expect to gather? There are perhaps four main relevant kinds:
  • Scientific. The Scottish Government already has a wealth of information and expert opinion from, for example, The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering and the Scottish Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Panel, both of which will not make the decision for ministers. It also plans a ‘public health impact assessment’ to generate more opinion on the likely risks. What it can’t gather is more information on the likely reward, since the commercial potential of fracking will only be known when companies perform test drills.
  • Other countries. It could examine, in more depth, the effect of fracking on other countries. However, meaningful learning takes years, if not decades, to see how policy progresses in line with events, and to consider how relevant (if at all) the lessons are to Scotland (which will not share the same geography as other countries).
  • Anti-fracking groups. The Scottish Government will want to know more about what it is up against – the number of people willing to actively oppose test drills, and the proportion that may be satisfied with further environmental safeguards.
  • The public. We really don’t know what people want. One survey in Scotland highlights anti-fracking feeling, while others identify minority opposition across the UK. The surveys also highlight a lack of knowledge/ awareness of fracking and shale gas, and that people tend to associate fracking with the risks and rewards.
In other words, beyond the need to have a canny electoral position, this moratorium may exist largely to focus on ‘governance’ issues. The Scottish Government is proud of its reputation as a government that makes policy through consultation, to gather evidence, seek consensus when it is there, and (when possible or appropriate) ‘co-produce’ policy with a wide range of people and organisations. However, in cases such as fracking, it also exists to make hard decisions in the absence of consensus – some groups will win and others will lose.
The evidence gathering process should therefore be about generating new data on:
  • public opinion (detailed enough to be meaningful),
  • the strength of opinion of pro- and anti- groups (to get a better sense of the potential for compromise in some areas), and
  • ‘best practice’, on how to conduct meaningful public exercises to inform the public about the risks and rewards, and to demonstrate ‘due process’, before any decision is made in each local area.

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