Tom Greatrex MP, Scottish Labour’s Shadow Energy Minister, is today tabling an amendment to devolve mineral access rights to Holyrood, and says the Scottish Government can and must take responsibility for decisions on shale gas extraction.
While INEOS see the extraction of shale gas as a feedstock for their chemicals business at Grangemouth, whether or not there is any extraction in Scotland is entirely down to the devolved Scottish government.
While Alex Salmond claims there are undoubted shale resources for Scotland, his former MP colleague Mike Weir says he is against it, and hopes by sleight of hand to suggest the responsibility lies elsewhere – with the UK Government.
The reality that the SNP find uncomfortable is that nothing can happen in Scotland without their approval. Rather than taking ownership of policy that has been devolved since the Scottish Parliament was established, the nationalists would rather pretend that the responsibility lies in Westminster, not Holyrood.
As so often, the SNP are desperate to distract from their ability to exercise the powers they hold.
The truth is that Holyrood’s control over the planning and permitting regime (via SEPA – responsible to Ministers in Edinburgh) gives Holyrood an effective veto over shale gas in Scotland – and in the Scottish Parliament earlier this year, the SNP voted down a moratorium.
While the Smith Commission was discussing enhanced devolution proposals, I made a submission calling for the additional devolution of mineral access rights. That recommendation was adopted in the final report and I will today table an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill to enact that change.
It makes sense for mineral access rights, in effect a secondary aspect of the planning regime, to be devolved as well. This will bring some coherence and clarity to a confusing situation – the public must have a clear sense of where responsibility for these decisions in Scotland lie. Rather than maintaining the false pretence that they are powerless to prevent fracking in Scotland, this amendment will help clarify that the Scottish government holds the responsibility for all aspects of planning.
Mineral access rights come after planning permission – so even now, if Holyrood Ministers wanted to impose a ban on any shale extraction in Scotland, they could.
But secondary powers on shale gas extraction don’t just need to be devolved – the regulations need to be overhauled. George Osborne’s all-out dash-for-gas leaves little time for ensuring that we have the regime in place to ensure that the health, safety and environmental risks can be effectively managed.
Labour amendments I am tabling to the government’s Infrastructure Bill today therefore contain a further ten measures to overhaul the regulatory regime. Shale gas extraction should not go ahead in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK without this robust regulation and comprehensive inspection in place.
Each of our amendments tabled to the Infrastructure Bill closes a loophole in the existing regulations which David Cameron has chosen to ignore. We will require baseline assessments of methane in the groundwater, monitoring and reporting of fugitive emissions and properly independent inspections of well-integrity. We will introduce a presumption against development in protected areas such as national parks and will empower planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of shale gas developments on an area, rather than considering individual applications on a case by case basis.
These measures are vital if we are to have a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose. But instead of fixing the regulatory framework, the Tories have boasted of cutting what they refer to as “green tape” on shale, and are desperate to draw simplistic comparisons with the USA to seek to present shale gas as the silver bullet to all of our energy problems, when it simply cannot be.
Rather than engage with these substantive issues of regulation, inspection and monitoring, it seems the SNP have resorted to their comfort blanket of trying to turn it into a solely a constitutional issue.
With depleting North Sea gas reserves, important questions over whether ethane for the Scottish chemical industry could come from within the UK, or whether some of the 80% of our homes that use gas for heating should might come from our own shores rather than imported on tankers from Qatar are not about the constitution – they are about evidence-led and cautious analysis, robust regulation and proper monitoring.
Rather than being powerless, the Scottish government has a veto. Rather than making a decision on whether to use it, the current Holyrood administration would rather pretend they can’t.
It’s time for a grown up debate on these issues, not the simplistic posturing the SNP seem unable to avoid.