Why Edinburgh should ban fracking

Cllr Chas Booth proposed a motion to the City Council today on fracking. Here’s why.

The Green Group motion seeks to explore the use of the council’s existing powers to make it much more difficult for a developer to bring forward an application for exploitation of shale gas, coal bed methane or underground coal gasification within the Edinburgh area, and ideally to explore ways to ban it. As Greens we feel that fracking is unnecessary, unsafe and unwanted and is unwelcome in the Edinburgh area.

Fracking is shorthand for a technique to extract natural gas, typically from shale rocks. It involves forcing water and chemicals into a well to fracture the rocks and release gas. Many people also use ‘fracThumb3 ChasBooth_hires3-611x1024king’ to refer to other types of unconventional gas extraction techniques, such as what’s being proposed to extract coal bed methane in Airth near Falkirk and Canonbie in Dumfries. It is often also used to refer to underground or undersea coal gasification.

The solid arguments against fracking are also true for the other unconventional gas techniques happening in Scotland so when I refer to ‘fracking’ during this debate, I will be using that as shorthand for, “fracking and other unconventional gas techniques”.

We know about the appalling threats to local environment and people’s health that the fracking industry represents, and in particular the problems that have arisen in America and Australia where it is more common. The lessons from those countries suggest that fracking is a dinosaur industry and is one we should have nothing to do with.

Having practically exhausted the easier to extract energy sources, oil company geologists are now resorting to more extreme methods of energy extraction. They’re digging or drilling deeper, in some of the world’s most stunning, pristine and remote locations, and possibly in a field near your home.

We know that energy companies already hold far more fossil fuel reserves than it is safe to burn. The Unburnable Carbon 2013 report calculates that “between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable’ if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C.”

The IPCC and International Energy Agency have calculated the amount of carbon emissions we can safely put into the atmosphere and conclude that the only way to avoid dangerous climate change is to leave a large proportion of our known oil, coal and gas in the ground.

Communities around Airth, Falkirk and Stirling have had long standing concerns about their health, and the health of the local environment, should more coal bed methane wells go ahead. They were astonished to find out that test drilling had been happening without their knowledge. Even the Council leader claimed he was unaware of this. Campaigners in Canonbie near Dumfries continue to fight the threat to their area from the second most advanced project in Scotland. This project revealed a loophole where permission for coal bed methane could be converted to permission for fracking without proper scrutiny. Until last week, a vast area of the central belt could potentially have been licensed for unconventional gas, and may yet still be licensed in the future, if the temporary moratorium comes to an end without a permanent ban.

And fracking is deeply unpopular: nearly 50,000 people have put their signatures to a petition to ban fracking in the central belt of Scotland.

Fracking is not needed: we can meet our energy demand through radical investment in energy efficiency and through moving our energy generation to a basket of renewables. As Greens we have long argued in this chamber for more investment in the energy efficiency of the council’s buildings, and we have consistently pushed for a council energy services company and support for community renewables. These are the initiatives that will provide energy security and tackle fuel poverty: radical energy saving coupled with clean, green renewables – not dirty and dangerous technologies such as fracking.

And while it is true that fracking in America has had a small impact on energy prices, the same is highly unlikely to occur in the UK due to our radically different energy market.

Indeed, the belief that unconventional gas will push prices down here is a false hope. George Osborne was forced to admit to the House of Lord’s Economic Affairs Committee that he did not want to “overpromise” on gas prices. The same committee also heard from industry and academics such as Bloomberg, EDF, E.ON and the UK Energy Research Centre that the impact of shale gas on household bills is very likely to be insignificant. Lord Stern, Professor of Economics and Government at the LSE, was right when he dismissed the Prime Minister’s claims of cheaper energy from shale gas as “baseless economics”.

The moratorium on fracking announced by Energy Minister Fergus Ewing last week is certainly welcome, as far as it goes. It’s clear there is no appetite amongst the general public for fracking, and the moratorium goes some way to address that.

But we feel it doesn’t go far enough, for two reasons:

Firstly, it is only a temporary moratorium as opposed to the permanent ban that is needed. There is a mountain of evidence that fracking is bad for the local environment, bad for people’s health and incompatible with our climate change objectives, so in our view we should reject it outright.

And secondly, while the moratorium includes fracking for shale gas and mining for coalbed methane, and this is of course welcome, it does not cover underground or undersea coal gasification. This is a significant loophole.

Indeed, two private companies have advanced plans to gasify the coal that underlies large parts of the Firth of Forth. Between them they have five exploratory licences for the seabed off Musselburgh, Kincardine, Largo Bay, and in the middle of the firth, plus an application pending for an area off Kirkcaldy. As one of the local authorities bordering the Forth, it is right that we make our position on this dirty and dangerous technology completely clear.

Why we should explore the use of our existing limited powers to make fracking, coal gasification and other forms of extreme energy much more difficult, and if possible, to ban them.

Lastly, let me briefly explain why this is very much an issue that is of relevance to this council. While it is true that the powers of a local authority are limited in this regard, we do have some powers, and in the view of the Greens, we should exercise them. To sit on our hands when we are faced with a dirty and dangerous industry such as the fracking industry would be irresponsible.

Specifically, we have powers as a planning authority, and it is a glaring omission that Edinburgh’s draft Local Development Plan includes a minerals policy that makes no mention of fracking, shale gas, coalbed methane or underground coal gasification whatsoever. We should at the very least outline the environmental safeguards we would expect any prospective developer to put in place.

But we would prefer to go further. Under the Scottish Government’s newly published National Planning Framework, local authorities have powers to implement buffer zones of 2km or so around unconventional gas developments. We can also insist on baseline testing, and refuse permission for previously mined or fractured areas. We should use these powers, and explore what additional measures can be put in place using existing powers to make fracking more difficult, and ideally to ban it.

In conclusion, fracking is a dirty, dangerous industry. While the moratorium announced last week by the Scottish Government has been widely welcomed, it does not, in our view, go far enough. We should and we must explore ways to use our existing powers to address some of the environmental and health issues raised by this industry.

Fracking and similar techniques are outdated follies which are not needed, not wanted and must be rejected.