Fracking and the Liberal Democrats

It seems that there is widespread misunderstanding among the federal party members as to why we here in Scotland decided to end the current moratorium we had on fracking and other non-conventional extraction of hydrocarbons.

Introduced in 2013, the Scottish moratorium on fracking was, as far as one understands it, based upon awaiting further evidence.  The following year, such evidence actually came to light in the form of the Scottish Government’s 2014 report: Independent Expert Scientific Panel – Unconventional Oil and Gas.   

The report is comprehensive: addressing as it does both the environmental and public concerns.  It comes to the conclusion that, with proper oversight, public consultation and tight planning restrictions, that it is possible to exploit the United Kingdom’s potential for future hydrocarbon exploitation.

It was upon the basis of this report that Ewan Hoyle of Glasgow put forward his amendment to end the moratorium on fracking.  At conference, I spoke in support of the amendment on the current state of the industry.  With the oil price currently around $36 a barrel, the North Sea offshore industry has already shed over 70,000 jobs, with the associated knock-on effects throughout the economy. 

Ewan also outlined the costs of importing oil and gas abroad, outlining the additional carbon cost of shipping.  I would like to expand upon this point.

Fracking graph

The graph comes from the report Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, published in 2013.  It shows that shale gas compares favourably with both non-EU gas imported by pipeline and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) which is the method of importation by tanker.

I want to add to this the issue of not just CO2, which is of course vital, but also that of safety.  To my mind, environmental concerns are global.  This was brought home to me in the mid 1990s by none other that the ecologist and botanist Dr. David Bellamy.   After he gave a talk, I asked him what he thought of the North Sea oil industry.  His answer surprised me.  David Bellamy regarded the North Sea has having the best and highest safety regulations and record in the world.  He said that one had to be very careful in campaigning against oil and gas extraction and gave the example of Conoco in Central America.  Conoco had obtained licences to drill in part of this nation’s rainforest and had prepared careful plans to do so with the minimum of ecological impact.  The green campaigners in the USA strongly objected and launched a huge campaign to stop Conoco drilling in the rainforest.  The Greens won: Conoco decided that the adverse publicity was not worth it and withdrew.  Big celebrations among environmentalists.

That still left a poor nation with an unhappy government determined to do its best.  What happened after Conoco pulled out was the government granted licences to some two-bit drilling outfit who didn’t give a damn either about its public image and even less about the environment.  The new operators trashed the place.

Since then, I have been working in the oil industry, very much at the sharp end and all over the world.  I found Dr. Bellamy to be correct: the North Sea basin (United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands) is collectively the best, the safest, the cleanest and most regulated oil and gas basin in the world.  Outside Northern Europe, the industry is patchy.  Some of the oil majors do manage to uphold high standards throughout their global operations.  Others say they do, while if the crunch comes and an incident reported, the move is not to investigate but to cover up.

This ought to show that if we in the UK do not use our own expertise, under our own regulations, to the standards applied to the offshore industry, but yet continue to import oil and gas from other parts of the world, we don’t really care about the environment.  What we don’t know may not upset us but we will be doing nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, accidents and pollution elsewhere.

So it saddens me that we have an email from Willie Rennie saying that the policy committee has decided to oppose fracking on the grounds of climate change.  As I have outlined above, this would be factually incorrect and smacks more of popularism than policy.  This drive is from top-down and does not reflect either conference decision nor understanding of the issues.

In campaigning, messages have to be simplified.  What should never, ever happen is that the message dictates the policy.  I get that fracking is not popular but for us to examine the evidence and then campaign against what the evidence says is frankly perverse.  That is one bandwagon that the Liberal Democrats should never jump on.  To do so may lead to some short term success but it will inevitably lead us being hollowed out morally as a party.  The last thing we need to adopt is an opportunistic culture.  Liberal Democrats need to be evidence-based.

Winning is important but if the leadership starts reversing conference decisions because they are politically inconvenient, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of party are we becoming?

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27 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Mar '16 - 1:10pm

    Very powerful article. I have to say though that I would like to hear more about fracking and water safety. The public quite like their cheap energy, which many don’t regard as cheap, but they don’t want contaminated water.

    When it comes to the lurch to the left, I think I’ll mischievously add: long live the Orange Book! (But not libertarianism). I haven’t even read the book, but what it stands for is important.

  • Toby Fenwick 5th Mar '16 - 1:28pm

    Excellent article Martin, thank you. Willie Rennie has some serious explaining to do, and quickly.

  • Jenny barnes 5th Mar '16 - 1:47pm

    Climate change is a global problem, not a Scottish one. The decision, democratic as it might be, looks like one that only really considers the local context. To achieve our Paris agreed cc objectives humanity needs to leave 80% of the already discovered fossil fuel reserves in the ground; it seems perverse to spend any effort looking for more. It aeems tha the Saudi tactic of high production is their attempt to sell as much as possible of their oil into the 20 % that’s still burnable.

  • You endorse the Scottish Government’s 2014 report as “comprehensive”, but then conveniently ignore the fact that the report frankly admits that it has no answer to the question of whether fracking would reduce GHG emissions, and states that more research is needed.

    There is no definitive “evidence-based” answer to this question.

  • Sorry, Martin, but that motion made the overall climate policy incoherent. You can’t on the one hand say “reduce all fossil fuels” while on the other give licence to a new way of extracting even more. And to use David Bellamy – who openly rejects climate change – as a person to support your argument is not going to help you much.

  • Alison Monk 5th Mar '16 - 3:14pm

    Thought provoking article Martin, my gut reaction is not to be comfortable with fracking, but then I would be even less comfortable if we don’t have enough gas to keep the heating and lights on. Really would like us to have an energy policy approach based on scientific fact and consideration rather then just responding to the lobby so think we do need a rethink . Willie’s email today just felt a little like it was playing to the cheap seats.

  • Galen Milne 5th Mar '16 - 4:22pm

    I wasn’t present when this debate took place so it’s hard to comment on the aftermath. It’s bad politics to overturn a conference decision in such a manner. Also to “pick and choose” regarding what evidence based science related topic one considers we should support e.g. regarding GMO crops, is again inconsistent and frankly double speak. Not a good week I’m afraid to say for our Party’s heirarchy.

  • Peter Watson 5th Mar '16 - 4:30pm

    @Keith Legg “You can’t on the one hand say “reduce all fossil fuels” while on the other give licence to a new way of extracting even more.”
    Why not?
    Fossil fuels will continue to be used for many years. It is entirely consistent to replace imported fossil fuels with locally extracted gas while at the same time trying to reduce overall usage. Furthermore, as some of the Scottish Lib Dems who voted for this make clear, there is a distinction between burning hydrocarbons for energy and using them as a feedstock in the petrochemical industry.

  • @Peter – because a fossil fuel is a fossil fuel, regardless of how you extract it. It still does the same amount of damage to the environment. If we’re encouraging more fossil fuels to be extracted and at the same time saying we need to reduce them, then that’s just daft.

  • It aeems tha the Saudi tactic of high production is their attempt to sell as much as possible of their oil into the 20 % that’s still burnable. (Jenny barnes 5th Mar ’16 – 1:47pm)

    The Saudi’s are at liberty to continue pumping oil whatever rate they deem fit, it isn’t the Saudi’s fault that other countries (eg. the US) have decided to allow largescale fracking, which in combination with the economic downturn in China has resulted in the world market being over supplied… Or are you suggesting that if I start producing cars that VW etc. should reduce their production to avoid the market being oversupplied?

  • Peter Watson 5th Mar '16 - 8:35pm

    @Keith Legg “If we’re encouraging more fossil fuels to be extracted and at the same time saying we need to reduce them, then that’s just daft.”
    It is not realistic to go from our current level of usage to zero overnight, so while going through a transition to using less why is it daft to replace at the same time imported fossil fuel with locally extracted shale gas. Indeed, it may be more efficient to use fossil fuels closer to the source than to transport them great distances.
    And unless you’re managing to live a plastic-free lifestyle, then you are surrounded by materials that started off as hydrocarbons: it’s not all about burning them for energy.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Mar '16 - 12:11am

    I agree with the global concerns, There are also local environmental (planning) concerns which will often mean that fracking is locally undesirable. Finally it is far from clear that fracking will stack up economically in UK conditions. Fracking is a dead end.

    Tony Greaves

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th Mar '16 - 7:05am

    There is one good reason to oppose fracking and that is that it contributes to climate change. That said it is not clear that it does if it is replacing dirtier technology such as coal.
    So I am open minded on this issue and if anything I am sympathetic to this article. What spoils this article is the reliance on David Bellamy in support of fracking. David Bellemy is a climate change denier and as a result on other issues he may be right or wrong but I cannot trust anything he says. You need to find more credible sources to back up your arguments.

  • Peter Watson
    No it is not practical “to go to zero overnight”. But that’s not the point, is it? If you open up a large scale technology, you will create low price pressures that the likes of Tory deniers (and there are many) will exploit. Larger supply will create larger demand. By giving in to fracking you invalidate any work that is being done to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Encouraging more renewables and energy saving should be the two driving forces. The Tories have actively worked against this, even more since May 2015.

    As for plastics, we know that for all sorts of reasons, biodiversity, oceanic health, sustainable food chains, carcinogenic issues etc, we will need to reduce plastics use. Many are steering around this issue, but it’s out there, and needs to be thought about, and dealt with.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Mar '16 - 9:33am

    @ Roland your straw man about car production is not my point at all. We have found more fossil fuel than we can burn without catastrophic cc consequences. The Saudis, very sensibly, are attempting to sell their reserves before the hammer comes down.
    It makes no sense to go looking for more fossil fuels , at some cost, when you can’t burn all that you already have. Especially when the Saudis are likely to keep the cost of any you do find and sell as low as possible.

    Mind you, we may very well have reached “peak car”, so in a sense if you, Roland, start producing cars, someone will have to produce less if you are to sell any.

  • Peter Watson 6th Mar '16 - 9:42am

    @Tim13 “If you open up a large scale technology, you will create low price pressures that the likes of Tory deniers (and there are many) will exploit. Larger supply will create larger demand.”
    There is definitely a risk that it could lower the urgency to reduce hydrocarbon usage, and any set of policies on energy and petrochemical production should address that by investing and delivering increased use of renewable sources.
    What I am trying to challenge here is the assumption that a policy that might allow the UK to benefit from lower prices, better security of supply, job creation, etc. is inherently inconsistent with a policy to manage an overall reduction in hydrocarbon usage at the same time.

  • Peter
    I think there is a need to distinguish between short-term and long-term here. And there is also a need to challenge assumptions around current ways of measuring economic growth, and that that growth is somehow essential. In relation to security of supply, I believe we are on the edge of a revolution – small scale generation, better and larger grid networks (at polar opposites of the scale).

    But we must challenge the economics of perpetual growth – without that challenge, we are probably deluding ourselves that we will ever enter a more benign ecological cycle on Planet Earth.

    In relation to “jobs”, ie paid work in the current sense, I think this country has gone down a misguided route, trying to worship the concept of the paid job, and how it is key to everything! It will probably not be very long before the inconsistency here becomes apparent (in fact, it could be argued that the creation of many fundamentally unproductive jobs are a major cause of the so-called “productivity conundrum”).

    Your final point, about inconsistency between energy policies of the types you mention, I accept. I think there are many people who hope climate change and our numerous other serious environmental challenges can be solved without serious change in our lifestyles, who try to tell us that as long as we take a few relatively painless actions, all will be fine!

  • @Jenny Barnes – My example isn’t a strawman, you like others are pointing the finger at the wrong player. The player who is misbehaving is the US! who have ramped up production from non-conventional sources before the hammer comes down, because according to your logic they did not obtain the permission of existing producers and their agreement to cut their production…

    You also neatly missed my point about car production; I will sell cars regardless of the competition if my product satisifies a market need, others may find themselves selling fewer cars or having to discount to sell their cars, but no one will have to produce less if you are to sell any! That is the way free and properly regulated markets work.

  • @Peter Watson – …so while going through a transition to using less why is it daft to replace at the same time imported fossil fuel with locally extracted shale gas. Indeed, it may be more efficient to use fossil fuels closer to the source than to transport them great distances.

    You’ve answered your own question by this statement!

    Because local production is likely to be more efficient in terms of total energy consumed in the extraction-to-consumer value chain than remote production, it makes it potentially a good source after you have transitioned to a low carbon economy.

    The only reason why, in todays world,. you would want to promote local production before a transition, is to capitalise on its economic value, namely it’s production will create jobs etc. and sell it for foreign exchange – and so improve our balance of payments.

  • David Garlick 6th Mar '16 - 10:51am

    If you want a reasoned argument for Fossil fuels ask an…. ‘oil man’?
    The whole argument is based on the flawed basis that fossil fuels can be used and that the fact that it is a ‘better damage’ makes it ok to do so.
    I don’t buy it, and the Party would do well not to buy it either.
    There is an abundance of fossil fuels available already 80+% of which must never be used. Adding to that by fracking makes no sense whatsoever especially as gas is not a fuel that we need going forward as we move to a renewable carbon neutral future.

  • @Peter Watson
    “What I am trying to challenge here is the assumption that a policy that might allow the UK to benefit from lower prices, better security of supply, job creation, etc. is inherently inconsistent with a policy to manage an overall reduction in hydrocarbon usage at the same time.”

    Challenge that assumption with evidence then. The formula is simple: if the cost in GHG emissions associated with fracking is greater than the cost of existing hydrocarbon fuels, then allowing fracking would completely contradict the Lib Dem policy of reducing GHGs. If on the other hand it could be shown that fracking had lower environmental cost than e.g. importing gas from Russia, then Rennie’s critics would have a point.

    The trouble is, nobody seems to know the answer to this question yet. The expert authors of the much-mentioned 2014 Scottish government report admit frankly that they don’t know. This being the case, Rennie’s position of extending the moratorium seems to me to be entirely consistent with both Lib Dem GHG policy, and the evidence base.

  • Neil Sandison 6th Mar '16 - 1:20pm

    Agree with Tony Greaves .If the government wasn’t trying so hard to undermine the planning system and public consultation and moving the goal posts in terms of locality to environmental sites of important local ecological and environmental significance .Then I would argue each application should be judged on its merits .However the more George Osbourne tries to load the dice against local communities genuine concerns the more we as Liberal Democrats the embodiment of local democracy and community politics should oppose these unfair and unbalanced determinations on these applications .

  • Peter Watson 6th Mar '16 - 6:15pm

    @Stuart “This being the case, Rennie’s position of extending the moratorium seems to me to be entirely consistent with both Lib Dem GHG policy, and the evidence base.”
    As I understand it, Rennie’s position is “a commitment to oppose fracking on climate change grounds” rather than just an extension of the moratorium, or as summarised by Caron Lindsay on a parallel thread, “Willie’s position is that it doesn’t matter what the evidence says, we simply shouldn’t be investing in yet more fossil fuels.”
    One problem I have with this approach (aside from it stretching the boundaries of what could be considered liberal and democratic) is that in and of itself, banning fracking does not reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
    I accept the arguments of Tim13 and Roland that the availability of shale gas might thwart the best intentions of those trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by stimulating demand rather than being a like-for-like replacement. But if (and I agree with Stuart that it’s a big if) using locally extracted shale gas has economic and environmental benefits over using the equivalent imported fossil fuels (particularly as a chemical feedstock) then why ban it rather than regulate it within the context of a policy to reduce overall CO2 emissions and encourage the use of renewables. If cheap shale gas changes the economics and increases demand, perhaps it could be taxed to make it less cheap and the revenues invested in renewables.

  • @Peter Watson We’re not the mercantile, base, people that the Liberals of old were! “Cheap” has no meaning for us, so long as the burden of additional cost is fairly, progressively distributed! We can just stop charging people for gas and electricity supply, and replace these payments with yet another 5% or 10% (need a calculator) Heating and Lighting Income Tax (on top of the existing income taxes, the 1% Education Income Tax, the 3% Council-Tax-Replacement Income Tax, and, of course, the soon-to-be-proposed 20% Shopping Income Tax (after which everything will be free in supermarkets). We are the ultimate Do-Gooders now! We want everything progressive, including progressive palsy.

    So long as the Weak and Vulnerable don’t pay much for the expensive, but progressive energy, we don’t care how much it costs!

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