Fuelling the debate

Published: 2 March 2015
Author: Paul Cairney

Constitutional considerations are generating more heat than light in discussions of Scotland’s future energy mix, says Prof Paul Cairney. This article also appears in the National and a longer version is available on the author’s blog.

UK energy policy is still reserved to the UK Government but major parts are devolved to the Scottish Government. Politically, Scotland has a veto over new nuclear power stations. Legally, it is securing greater powers to oppose hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (‘fracking’). It is also pursuing a distinctive renewable energy policy, underpinned by its ability to help fund and approve the planning permission for major projects.

Yet, it does not have the legal power to control the complete mix of energy production. This limitation helps generate the sense of a fragmented policy process in which the Scottish Government is best able to block new major sources of energy without having the same power to encourage alternatives – particularly since it does not set the rules on its connection to the National Grid. This is an increasingly unsustainable position, since major sources of Scotland’s energy – its old nuclear power (Torness and Hunterston B) and coal burning plants (Longannet) – are coming to the end of their lives. We have reached the point where the Scottish Government, in cooperation with the Scottish Parliament and other actors, has to help produce a long term strategy to secure its energy needs within a UK and EU framework.

Let’s think about what it would take to produce a sensible, transparent strategy with widespread support within Scotland. We need the capacity to process evidence, on our energy demand and the risks and rewards of meeting it with renewables, nuclear and thermal production.  We need a way for government information strategies, combined with parliamentary scrutiny and deliberation, to help inform the public about the overall energy issues, rather than have public attention focused on specific hot button issues like fracking. We need the Scottish Government to foster cooperation among business, energy, public sector, environmental and community groups, to generate a sense of ‘ownership’ of an energy strategy that is consistent with other aims, such as sustainable growth and adherence to climate change targets. We need some cross-party agreement to maintain a long term strategy. We need the Scottish Government to maintain a regular relationship with the UK Government and public bodies, to secure agreement on Scotland’s contribution to UK policy. Finally, we need a robust legal framework, and well-resourced regulators, to maintain a dual focus on energy production and environmental (and health and) safety.

Yet, as things stand, constitutional and party politics are getting in the way of that broader public debate. The legacy of the referendum campaign – combined with the stress of regular elections - is that politicians still don’t feel they can let their guard down and show any sort of uncertainty. So, we have each side making great claims for their preferred energy solutions without admitting that they rely on a mix of them all (renewable, nuclear, coal and gas), either through domestic production or importing energy. They also continue to describe these problems as constitutional – either to complain that UK bodies are discriminating against them, when setting the rules on electricity charges, or to thank the heavens for a British market to keep the lights on when the wind dies down. Whenever I hear any party political debate, in Parliament, or on TV, I honestly can’t work out what each side wants to do, and what are the pros and cons to their preferred strategy (or, at least, the preferences of parties likely to make these decisions). We need a proper public debate and a sense of clarity about the key choices (which you might associate with Scotland’s new reputation for political discussion), not a cagey and defensive discussion which makes us none the wiser.

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