Scottish Liberal Democrat fracking decision – setting the record straight

Yesterday we published this post entitled: “Willie Rennie reaffirms Scottish Lib Dems’ opposition to fracking – despite Conference vote”. Beneath the article, Graeme Cowie posted a six part response. As per our comments policy, the length of comments is limited to encourage short and pithy debate. We do not allow multi-part comments. However, under the circumstances we decided to ask Graeme if he would like, instead, his comments to be published as a full article. Graeme assented, so here is his comment in full.

Correcting the Record

As the person who summated the amendment that received around 2/3 of the support of a very busy Conference Hall, I feel compelled to respond to the total double-speak over this issue. It is firstly misleading to imply that the debate was poorly attended; asides the Saturday debate on All Women Shortlists, it was the best attended debate of the entire Conference.

Let’s be clear, this is not Willie “reaffirming” our opposition to fracking. There is no “affirmation” or “reaffirmation” about it. The Scottish Party called for a moratorium 3 years ago so that the Scottish Government could ingather evidence about the local and global environmental impact of permitting shale extraction in Scotland. Since then, the Scottish Government received a report, in which experts in the field concluded not only that well regulated fracking was safe but that in conjunction with other measures could be complementary, rather than detrimental, to net Scottish and global carbon emissions.

The Constitution

Willie’s actions serve explicitly to reverse, disregard and dismiss a clear expression of the sovereign will of the Scottish Party membership to follow the evidence on fracking and to leave decisions about individual fracking applications to local authorities, whilst prioritising petrochemical usage where possible so as to minimise the environmental impact of the industry.

The decision to put this question to Policy Committee was unconstitutional. They do not have the authority or the legitimacy under the Scottish Lib Dem Constitution to override a clear and unambiguous Conference vote less than a week later in the absence of some pretty significant changes to the lie of the political terrain in the intervening period. Patrick Harvie writing a sarcastic Tweet and The Glasgow Herald writing an article about it doesn’t amount to a material change in circumstance. Policy Committee’s mandate from the membership is to fill-in the gaps where there is no policy and to respond to extraordinary events. Beyond that, Conference sets policy and Policy Committee merely advises and informs the process of policy generation.

Exploiting Policy Committee

The decision to put this to Policy Committee, even if it wasn’t unconstitutional, palpably disrespects the democratic process of the party. I can only conclude that the intentions behind it were to allow the leadership to “spread the blame” for the u-turn and to give them a cloak of legitimacy. The meeting in question was hastily convened, was conducted by Conference call, and the overtone of the “request” from the leadership was essentially “back us or sack us”. That’s not an environment in which good policy can be reached or in which respectful dialogue is entertained.

The reasons given in the members email give a misleading impression both of the principal motivations behind the u-turn and the debate that took place at Conference. It is simply untrue to state or imply that the question of climate change and carbon emissions was not addressed in the debate, creating this apparent “inconsistency” of position. It is frankly pretty galling that people who weren’t even in the hall for the debate are parsing almost as gospel truth the impression that the anti-ban speakers were in any sense not mindful of the carbon question.

The Argument Made in the Debate about Climate Change and Carbon

The argument specifically put forward was a multifaceted one in which Ewan, I and others, spelt out clearly the factors we believed existed that suggested a switch towards domestic shale would bring about a long-term reduction in domestic and global fossil fuel extractions and lessen the environmental, financial and diplomatic impact of Europe importing fossil fuel products from the US, Middle East and Russia.

We drew specific attention to:

1. The environmental and financial cost of importing US shale for the Ineos petrochemical plant at Grangemouth. The amendment drew attention to the petrochemical industry because it is one area where the environmental impact of shale can be further minimised according to the Scottish Government’s 2014 report.
2. The dependence of Europe on Russian gas and Saudi and Qatari oil.
3. The impact of higher offshore extraction costs and globally low oil prices on the stability of the domestic energy sector, and how that negatively impacts investment decisions in the implementation and research of green energy projects.
4. The brain drain that is already happening in the Scottish oil and gas sector, especially of young graduates, to other countries, and how this would mean us falling behind the renewables sectors of other countries. This means having to buy their technology back at a premium later as a result, much like has happened with our nuclear energy sector.

Excusing the Inexcusible

As someone who does not actually feel that strongly about fracking, but who simply thinks a blanket ban isn’t smart for our energy strategy, I am appalled at the way party democracy has been frustrated here. There is an overriding feeling, having spoken to several senior figures within the party, that the real motivation behind this U-turn is not on the evidence. Caron admits as much in this piece.

The bottom line is they think the mixed-energy strategy, even if it is better for climate change, is too complicated to communicate to voters. I’ve heard organisers complain that it means their Green squeeze letters need to go in the bin. As a party we should not be pandering to voters who are led not by green science but by green dogma. We were clear about this on GM at last Conference and it is an abdication of responsibility to frustrate internal party democracy in order to surrender to that dogma on shale.

What is worst about this is the precedent it sets. Willie has never been beaten on a Conference motion since becoming Party leader. On at least two occasions, minimum alcohol pricing and All Women Shortlists, he has (perfectly within his rights) staked explicitly the confidence in his leadership on the votes going the right way. It’s quite one thing to seek to persuade the membership to back you. It’s altogether another one overtly to defy them.

The Precedent

Speaking personally as a Scottish Conference Committee member (I don’t presume to speak for the rest), I have grave concerns about the implications of the debates we facilitate being cut-off at the knees by a leadership brow-beat of another Scottish Party Committee. We had three anti-blanket-ban/moratorium amendments submitted to CC independently of one another, and the clear feeling we had was that for good or ill this had to be debated and to be debated explicitly, honestly and transparently.

If the leadership won’t respect, to borrow a phrase from the independence referendum, a “clear, legal and decisive” act of Conference, can we in good faith keep the word “Democrats” in our party name? Democracy means that sometimes you don’t get your own way. When I voted against minimum alcohol pricing at my first every Scottish Lib Dem Conference, I was defeated, I licked my wounds, and I moved on. That was what was expected of me and the others. When people who felt strongly against All Women Shortlists were defeated last Saturday, they were told, quite rightly, that they should respect the democratic process, lick their wounds and move on.

Why is it that when Conference supports the leadership it’s binding and an act of disrespect to rebel, but when Conference disagrees with them its word is provisional, borderline advisory?

Liberals exist to speak truth to power and to raise debate from the gutter, not to pander to the prejudices of the loudest voices. Either we are a democratic party or we are not. Perhaps tellingly, it is time for Willie Rennie to decide.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “The Scottish Party called for a moratorium 3 years ago so that the Scottish Government could ingather evidence about the local and global environmental impact of permitting shale extraction in Scotland. Since then, the Scottish Government received a report, in which experts in the field concluded not only that well regulated fracking was safe but that in conjunction with other measures could be complementary, rather than detrimental, to net Scottish and global carbon emissions.”

    The key words here are “could be”. As the authors of the 2014 report are at pains to point out, there is no definitive answer to whether fracking would lead to a decrease or increase in GHG emissions. For instance, paragraph 6.72 :-

    “However, unless there is comparison of the emissions that will be saved by the change in energy generation from other fossil fuel or renewable sources, which in turn requires their complete carbon footprint to be calculated, the net loss or gain in greenhouse gas emissions that unconventional hydrocarbons will offer cannot be ascertained.”

    This being the case, I think you are seriously exaggerating the extent to which you are following some objective evidence-based path while those who disagree with you are simply peddling “dogma”. In the absence of evidence that fracking would reduce GHG emissions, Willie Rennie is entirely correct to say that allowing fracking could be inconsistent with the policy to reduce GHG emissions.

    Evidence-based policy sometimes means acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge, rather than cherry picking bits of evidence and holding this up as proof that one has discovered an objective fact.

  • George Potter 6th Mar '16 - 2:42pm

    I’m against fracking but a policy which allows local government to decide whether or not to allow fracking in their area is one which strikes me as being fundamentally liberal and democratic since it lets local people have the ultimate say in what happens where they live.

    It’s a shame that the same liberal and democratic approach apparently doesn’t characterise Willie Rennie’s leadership.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Mar '16 - 3:21pm

    George – I live on planet Earth. Will I get a say on Scottish fracking? Not on this policy.
    Climate change is not a local issue.

  • George Potter 6th Mar '16 - 3:33pm

    Climate change is a global issue – which is why we support legally binding CO2 targets and taxes to penalise the worst polluters.

    But whether or not fracking takes place in Inverness should really be up to the people of Inverness and not the government in Edinburgh.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Mar '16 - 6:19pm

    @jenny – we will be using gas for many years. the question is whether we get it from under the UK – with all the tax and jobs benefits -or from overseas

  • Peter Watson 6th Mar '16 - 6:30pm

    I note that the position of the Lib Dems, as presented to the electorate at the 2015 UK General Election, is:

    The UK has significant stores of unconventional gas, which could be accessed through the process known as fracking. It is vital that efforts to access this gas be properly regulated to protect our natural environment. Liberal Democrats in government have introduced the world’s most robust regulatory regime for unconventional gas, including banning drilling in National Parks, and will take two further steps to ensure any shale gas contributes to a faster transition to a low-carbon economy.
    We will:

    Establish a Low-carbon Transition Fund using 50% of any tax revenues from shale gas to fund energy efficiency, community energy, low-carbon innovation and renewable heat.
    Require that once a shale gas well is finished, it must be offered at no cost to geothermal heat developers, to enable faster expansion of this renewable technology.

    Willie Rennie appears to be unilaterally doing more than simply overruling one conference vote.

  • Graham – will you formally complain about this (unconstitutional) step to the Scottish Party’s Appeals Tribunal as they should decide about this. As it happens I don’t agree with you on the substantive issue – but if the leader can just reverse party policy votes whenever they feel like it then next time it might happen on an issue I didn’t agree with.

    I’m also submitting a complaint to the party about Willie that he has failed to treat members with respect and brought the party into disprepute by these manouvers which you might want to also do.

  • @ Graeme Cowie “The Scottish Government received a report, in which experts in the field concluded not only that well regulated fracking was safe but that in conjunction with other measures could be complementary, rather than detrimental, to net Scottish and global carbon emissions.”

    Well, I’ve read the report – (unlike I guess many of the folk that were in the hall and had to take your word for what it says) and your paragraph above is a more than generous interpretation of what it actually says. It begs many questions as to what ‘well regulated’ means and on the ability of the Scottish Government to exercise such regulation given the track record of multi-national corporations. Remember Trump and Aberdeenshire ?

    You claim to be “someone who does not actually feel that strongly about fracking.but who simply thinks a blanket ban isn’t smart for our energy strategy.”

    For “someone who does not feel that strongly” – you could have kidded me…. especially when you chose a time to take up this issue just before an election when the Leader had a very clearly stated public position. Great timing.

  • Peter Watson 7th Mar '16 - 9:15pm

    @David Raw “you chose a time to take up this issue just before an election when the Leader had a very clearly stated public position.”
    What is that “very clearly stated public position” to which you refer?
    As my quote from the 2015 manifesto shows, last May, Lib Dems across the UK campaigned on a platform to allow and regulate fracking and use tax revenue from it.

  • Peter Watson 7th Mar '16 - 9:45pm

    Googling to try and find references to Willie Rennie and the Scottish Lib Dems opposition to fracking has not been very fruitful, but it did throw up this: “Alistair Carmichael almost always voted against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas” (

  • Peter Watson 7th Mar '16 - 11:56pm

    Actually, I’m now very confused about the position of Lib Dems in Scotland (and elsewhere) on fracking. Looking at the “TheWorkForYouSite” the following (mostly former) Scottish Lib Dem MPs are all described as “generally voted against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas”:
    Danny Alexander, Malcolm Bruce, Menzies Campbell, Michael Crockart, Charles Kennedy, Michael Moore, Alan Reid, Robert Smith, Jo Swinson, John Thurso
    while Alistair Carmichael “almost always voted against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas” and Charles Kennedy “never voted on greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas”.
    By way of comparison, Tim Farron (and Caroline Lucas for the Greens) “voted a mixture of for and against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas”.
    Google did not throw up any strong anti-fracking quotes from Rennie or Scottish Lib Dems so perhaps somebody can point me to them. I did notice that the Greens introduced at least one motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for fracking to be banned: how did Lib Dem MSPs vote on that?
    At the moment, I can’t reconcile any of this and the 2015 manifesto with the notion that Willie Rennie is “reaffirming” anything by overturning the conference vote, it simply looks like a unilateral U-turn, and I cannot even be sure that he is speaking for a majority of his party. I still don’t really know the answer to a question I have posed a couple of times: “what is Lib Dem policy on fracking?”

  • Peter Watson 7th Mar '16 - 11:59pm

    Oops – sorry, I forgot to delete Charles Kennedy from of my list of those who “generally voted against greater regulation” when I was using a copy-and-pasted list of all Scottish Lib Dem MPs.

  • @Peter Watson
    Time to apologise to you, I thought “Yeh, he’s searching on google but not bothered checking FaceBook”. However I’ve just checked his official (?) FB account ( that goes all the way back to May 2011. A search for “Frackin” only shows 8 hits, 7 of those were from the last few weeks and No. 8 was from a readers comment last Oct.

  • It is totally inconsistent to pursue gas offshore but not onshore. It is dimwitted not to know that gas is required under any energy scenario; green or otherwise, especially since 85% of homes are heated by gas but also because coal and nuclear power are being phased out: The only question is where that gas must come from. It is also seriously misguided to imagine that anything Scotland does will ever affect the climate. All we are achieving with the ban is jeopardising jobs and industry in Scotland for empty gesture politics.

    The faux-green hypocrites don’t want more regulation, they seem to despise industry in all its forms in favour of a false idea of a rural utopia that would turn out to be less environmentally friendly and kill off a lot of folk earlier as they had to decide whether to heat or eat.

    The undecided should watch fracknation on youtube so they at least can say they have seen the other side of the story. Fearmongering should not win out over facts. If you like consensus then you should accept the overwhelming consensus that fracking is a net benefit in every respect. We cannot let a luddite minority rule over traditional Liberal common sense! Rennie and Fallon must stop pretending to be the new Green party and return to being a true Liberal party which makes decisions based on realism and pragmatism. Being 100% renewable may be a nice idea but we cannot just avoid the arithmetic and costs of trying to achieve it.

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