Willie Rennie reaffirms Scottish Lib Dems’ opposition to fracking – despite Conference vote

Last Friday, Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference passed this amendment to a motion on climate change.

After line 21 insert:
“The report of the Independent Expert Scientific Panel on Unconventional Oil and Gas published in July 2014 which states that “The technology exists to allow the safe extraction of such reserves, subject to robust regulation being in place” and “There could be minimal impact from unconventional hydrocarbons if they are used as a petrochemical feedstock.”

Delete lines 36 to 38 and replace with

“Lifting the moratorium on planning and licensing for unconventional oil and gas extraction, granting the potential for Scottish-sourced unconventional gas to supply our important petrochemical industry.”

The original lines 38 and 39 read:

maintaining a complete moratorium on planning permission and licensing for tracking and unconventional gas extraction in Scotland for the next parliamentary term to allow for a full assessment of the risks involved and the long term implications.

We all thought that was that until an email came to Scottish members last night entitled “We need to talk about fracking.”

It said:

Last weekend at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference, members voted to lift the moratorium on fracking and unconventional gas extraction while supporting a pre-manifesto commitment that endorses a move away from polluting fossil fuels and continued support for renewable energy.

These two policies do not go hand in hand.

Scotland has missed its climate change targets for the last four years. We need an energy mix that will help us cut down on emissions, not boost them. Fossil fuels will remain part of the picture for years to come but our focus must be on reducing carbon emissions.

We don’t want to distract from supporting renewables by opening up a whole new front of carbon-based fuels and energy production.

That’s why, at a meeting of Policy Committee last night, it was agreed that the party’s manifesto will contain a commitment to oppose fracking on climate change grounds.

Scotland needs a strong climate change policy that does not divert investment and research away from green technologies.

I believe we have that strong policy and I hope you will stand by our bold proposals to make sure Scotland’s energy needs are met by renewable resources that do not open up a whole new front of carbon-based fuels and energy production.

Those who proposed and supported the amendments will not be happy that what was a clear Conference vote has effectively been overturned. The issues are slightly nuanced. Willie’s position is that it doesn’t matter what the evidence says, we simply shouldn’t be investing in yet more fossil fuels.

He discussed this pretty frankly with Policy Committee, which has ultimate responsibility for the manifesto, on Thursday evening. They agreed to back his position.

This is far from the first time that a leader has not implemented a Conference decision. What’s different is that they don’t usually  bother to consult the party about it. Think of all those conference votes against secret courts the Bedroom Tax and the NHS reforms  which Nick Clegg ignored. Ross Finnie, as Rural Affairs Minister back in 2002 came into conflict with Liberal Democrat moves over GM crops.

I suspect that the party will be more comfortable with the position that Willie has taken than the amendment even if it is unhappy with the process. If nothing else it’s refreshing to have the leader adopt a more radically environmentalist position than the Conference.

Only around half of those registered for Conference were in the hall for the vote. I’m kicking myself for sitting in the cafe sipping tea and chatting for my friends, because had I been in the hall, I’d have voted against it, as would  a fair few of the people in there with me. One of the morals of this story is that if the subject matters to you, you need to be in the hall.

It’s a tricky situation, and there will need to be a bit of good will on both sides to get through it. I think the policy that was passed last Friday was inherently contradictory. You can’t call for action to tackle climate change that enables burning of more fossil fuels. We have always talked the importance of careful stewardship of the planet. I understand the frustration of the supporters of the amendment, too. I proposed the motion, passed unanimously in Dundee in 2013, against secret courts that was subsequently ignored by Nick Clegg so I know how that one feels. Unlike what we did on secret courts, though, I think that Willie has done the right thing to ensure that our policy is coherent. Policy Committee and the leader need to take an overview of all our policy. Our pre-manifesto has a strong section on climate change and the environment, committing us to “beat our climate change targets with bold plans” and to focus on renewable energy. That was also passed by Conference by a massive margin. I don’t think anybody voted against it.

I think that Willie’s statement last night makes us more capable of delivering the ambitions in the pre-manifesto and I think, on this occasion, we should back him because he’s right.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Graham Martin-Royle 5th Mar '16 - 10:04am

    What is the point of conference if the party ignores it?

  • @Graham – but what conference passed was a motion which unintentionally contradicts itself – a bit like banning chips from the school canteen while letting pupils decide the menu. Someone has to sort out the mess, and short of a special conference this is the only way to do it.

  • Willie’s position is that it doesn’t matter what the evidence says

    Sounds about right.

    It is perfectly coherent to take a pragmatic view on fracking whilst still increasing investment in renewable generation. Until renewable energy can take over we are still going to burn gas whether it is extracted and taxed in Russia or extracted and taxed in the UK. Should the money we spend on gas be used to prop up Putin’s imperial ambitions or should it be used to invest in the UK’s renewable future? Willie Rennie has chosen the former.

  • Alan Depauw 5th Mar '16 - 10:38am

    I agree with john above. Surely the policy that was voted was not inherently contradictory. In uncertain times fracking could replace unreliable external sources of oil and gas, providing revenue to invest in non-fossil technology towards which we would transit over time.

  • The comparison with the coalition is wrong. The Liberal Democrat conference never had the power to set coalition policy – it would have been a democratic outrage if it did. It never even had the power to set Liberal Democrat manifesto policy – that power is reserved to the FPC.

    Now I’m in favour, as I’ve argued before, of leaders having flexibility to create a consistent narrative out of disparate conference resolutions. The party’s view is that this should be done by a committee rather than the leader. Either way, there must be some accountability for it. How did each policy committee member vote? So that they can be judged when up for re-election.

  • David Evans 5th Mar '16 - 11:27am

    It might have been “a democratic outrage” to you if conference had the right to set policy. To me it is “a democratic outrage” that your leader squandered forty years of hard work by previous generations of Lib Dems by ignoring Conference and talking down to the party, “Grown up government” being just one of a series of examples of expressions used to convey the contempt held for those who pointed out the disaster that was happening.

    We now in a position where are having to fight enormously hard to just hold our own – No MPs in the South West, only one in Scotland and one in Wales etc; only one MEP and little more than a handful of gains in principal councils since last May. As for the huge numbers of staff having to be laid off and the communities that now have no Lib Dem at any level of government to represent them and their area.

    That really is a democratic outrage.

  • Shocking decision. Basically Willie is saying that conference has no role in setting policy and if it votes how he doesn’t like then he will ignore it. Now just imagine if that happened after the vote on AWS….

    One issue raised in the 2015 election review was that party bodies and the leadership ignored conference decisions.

    One reason I don’t want anything much to do with the party (and why I don’t see how it can be turned around from it’s route into moribun irrelevance) is that members simply cant change things. The power is all in places they can’t access.

  • Simon McGrath 5th Mar '16 - 11:40am

    Disgraceful decision. “This is far from the first time that a leader has not implemented a Conference decision” – there is a huge difference between not implementing a conference decision and putting exactly the opposite in a manifesto

  • Can’t support this, and, honestly, this makes me unwilling to do anything at all during this election campaign.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Mar '16 - 12:37pm

    I don’t believe in democracy as much as I used to. I was a radical, but being a radical democrat is quite a lonely place and I’m not willing to be on the losing side.

    The public, and the Lib Dems, don’t really care about it as a fundamental value. It is why people support the “constitutional” monarchy, the House of Lords and industrial blackmail.

    Having said that, I would like the Lib Dems to speak out for democracy more. It shouldn’t just be chucked on the bonfire of “Orange book” policies that somehow “help the Tories”.

    Graeme Cowie makes some good points and makes Willie’s decision look less enlightened.

  • Peter Watson 5th Mar '16 - 1:09pm

    A couple of days ago in another thread on this topic I asked, “Just for clarification, what is Lib Dem policy on fracking?”.
    I’m even more confused now.
    Is the official Lib Dem line that voters are too dumb to reconcile swapping imported hydrocarbons for gas produced in the UK while at the same time trying to reduce the overall use of hydrocarbons for energy production?

  • Many thanks Graeme.

    I do wonder if what is at work here is an example of the tension between the leaders and the activists of all parties over when to follow and when to lead public opinion.

    I believe the conference weighed the evidence correctly and voted accordingly, though it doesn’t always. Party leaders don’t themselves magically get it right any more often than conferences, but they do – as it is their job – have some instinct for which battles to pick. I suspect Willie, to have taken this step, is sincerely convinced that it is both a) the wrong policy and b) the wrong battle to pick.

    I’ve often thought the difference between, say, Tony Blair and John Major, was not that great in policy terms – the difference is where they are willing to lead public opinion and where they choose to follow. Not so much which home truths they believed as which they were willing to tell, and what they left to the focus group.

    It is a calculation that every leader must make. Now I would like to see more leadership on climate change, but I recognise the political difficulty. Policy is dominated by handwringing symbolic nonsense demanded by civil society, with outright denialism a close second. A sound policy would price carbon, invest in R&D and support global agreements, and that is it. It would be focussed. It would work – or at least stand more chance of working than what we have now. But who would vote for it? The environmentalists and the denialists would both vote against.

    For most, supporting the environment, seems to mean following not leading on environmental policy.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Mar '16 - 1:14pm

    It seems to me that there is some sense in what Willie is trying to do here as well as in the conference policy.

    The conference policy seems to be saying that there is nothing wrong with Fracking in principle if properly regulated and monitored, which is true. Any ‘rush to fracking’ (in an energy price environment which has disappeared for now but might well come back), however, would increase Hydrocarbon use and divert investment away from renewables. Fracking ought to be kept as a strategic reserve option, as should have coal fields had not Mrs Thatcher determined to let the viable mines flood thereby rendering them largely useless in perpetuity.

  • Mark Smulian 5th Mar '16 - 1:49pm

    I hesitate to enter this debate, being neither Scottish nor involved in the energy industry, but what on earth were Willie Rennie and his supporters doing during the Scottish Lib Dem conference?
    The amendment to lift the moratorium was, presumably, an obvious part of the agenda. If Willie thought that defeating it was essential to the election campaign he intends to fight, he evidently did not put much effort into trying to argue his case or organising others to do so.
    Leaders almost always win conference debates (at least at federal conferences) when they do this, but if they can’t convince their own party then maybe their position isn’t such a good idea anyway.

  • I find myself somewhat in agreement with Joe, although I disagree, as I did in Bournemouth, with his view that the Leader, instead of the Policy Committee, should have the final say.

    The problem is that opposing fossil fuel usage and supporting fracking are mutually exclusive. Due to European law, and indeed British law, we cannot guarantee that the gas extracted in Scotland via fracking will necessarily be used in Scotland. And limiting it to petrochemical use only is a fool’s errand when natural gas is so abundant in power generation.

    I don’t even know why the Scottish party thinks that fracking is even necessary, especially as Scotland is a leader within the EU for renewable energy generation.

  • @Graham 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.”

    The trouble with that sentence is that it would be just as accurate if you had written it like this :-

    “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 detrimental, rather than complementary, to net Scottish and global carbon emissions.”

    The reason being that the report in question is explicit that it has no definitive answers to this question either way, and that much more research is needed. This being so, Rennie’s decision here is actually perfectly sensible and consistent with Lib Dem carbon reduction policy; and it’s very misleading for the pro-fracking lobby to imply that the report gives some sort of green light to reducing GHG through fracking.

  • Robin Bennett 5th Mar '16 - 6:50pm

    What’s happened to Graeme Cowie’s comments Part 2 – 6 which were on this site earlier today?

  • Robin, Graeme’s comments will be published as a separate post tomorrow.

  • Joe Otten ” It never even had the power to set Liberal Democrat manifesto policy – that power is reserved to the FPC.”

    I’m sorry but this contradicts what is on the Lib Dem website In front of a picture of Shirley Williams ” How is policy made? It’s made by you!”

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 5th Mar '16 - 7:43pm


    Not every policy makes it into every manifesto. They’d probably be about 300 pages long if they did. Federal Policy Committee at UK level and Policy Committee in Scotland have the responsibility for deciding what goes in the manifesto.

  • Caron LindsayCaron Lindsay 5th Mar ’16 – 7:43pm

    Not every policy makes it into every manifesto. They’d probably be about 300 pages long if they did. Federal Policy Committee at UK level and Policy Committee in Scotland have the responsibility for deciding what goes in the manifesto.”

    Ah ok I see. What happens to all the policies which don’t make it into the Manifesto? Are they recorded somewhere and is there a mechanism whereby they might be considered for a future manifesto?

  • “My understanding is that all the members of PC ultimately backed Willie’s position.”

    Caron – I note the use of the word “ultimately” was this the old, have a vote on a contentious issue and then when it’s decided have another vote endorsing that so the leader can say he had unanimous backing (or it’s close cousin

  • The Scottish Party constitution says (about the Policy Committee):
    “An election manifesto shall be based upon the pre-manifesto document as approved, and policy adopted by, the Conference.”

    Does the Policy Committee even have the power to do what it has done? Certainly I think some Scottish member should refer it to their appeals panel.

    I can certainly think of instances where policy has been left out of manifesto, there are probably examples of times when something on which there was no policy was included in the manifesto. But include something the opposite of policy passed at conference? I’d be curious if that has ever happened.

  • Peter Watson 5th Mar '16 - 11:26pm

    Based on the two hottest topics currently being debated on this site, the party risks appearing neither liberal (all women shortlists) nor democratic (overturning a conference vote).
    Lib Dems, quo vadis?

  • Jim Alexander 5th Mar '16 - 11:53pm

    “We don’t want to distract from supporting renewables by opening up a whole new front of carbon-based fuels and energy production” as stated by our Leader

    One small issue however – for every Kw generated by Renewables we require the same Kw back up from Fossil Fuel or Nuclear – the bottom line is renewables only work “sometimes” therefore there will be no reduction in the requirement for Fossil Fuel based Power Stations – that being the case then using Fracking for Gas rather than imported Coal uses less Carbon

    But why bother with the facts or a debate – “Willie has decided” – just as he “decided: that we should have AWL – funny that at the top of EVERY Regional list in Scotland is a White Middle Class Middle aged Male – if AWL were such a personal issue for our Leader – how come the most obvious way of getting Women elected which is via the Regional Lists for Holyrood via PR as opposed to First past the post in UK Elections didn’t happen -or am I missing something ?

    Would someone like to point out exactly what is the point of Party Conference and Motions ?

    We are Liberal DEMOCRATS – a Motion was voted for – as pointed out – if it was so important that it was defeated -why wasn’t our Leader and MSPs arguing against the motion – why weren’t the Members of the Scottish Exec arguing against the motion – were they all in the Cafe “chatting with friends”

    How can the Party challenge the Nats when it can’t even stick to Policy Voted at Conference

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th Mar '16 - 7:19am

    One of the few public disagreements between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb was on fracking. Norman supported and Tim was against. My impression is that the party as a whole is in favour and if we want to avoid a damaging row then I think FPC should set up a working group to look into this. Except it is too late we are debating it at our next conference.

  • Jim Alexander, surely we should be ensuring we back wholeheartedly attempts to ensure we can store effectively renewable energy generated, not just accept as a “given fact” that we have to have fossil fuel generation “backing it up” for the intermittent periods when the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine, the rivers don’t flow, the tides don’t rise and fall, the earth’s crust turns to ice…..

    Give us a break, Jim, we can achieve it – no, sorry, we must!

  • Jane Ann Liston 6th Mar '16 - 9:54am

    Geothermal heat pumps are renewable, yet not intermittent. Lots of potential there.

  • Jim Alexander 6th Mar '16 - 12:57pm

    So ‘we must’ use something rather than fossil fuels when renewable methods don’t work – fair enough – what are you going to use – show me large scale powder generation technology that’s bit fossil or nuclear – as for Heat pumps last time I looked they used electricity – yes they are efficient but they still use electricity

  • Willie took a sensible step and I support him. The movers of the amendment knew full well they were challenging him head personally on given statements in the past at a critical pre-election period. They also gave an open goal to the Scottish Greens who may well now deprive us of sufficient votes to retain list seats at Holyrood.

    It would be interesting to know how many delegates in a poorly attended debate hads actually read the document quoted.

  • Peter Watson 6th Mar '16 - 10:45pm

    @David Raw “Willie took a sensible step and I support him.”
    It probably seems like a sensible step to those who agree with him about fracking and an illiberal undemocratic one to those who do not!

    “The movers of the amendment knew full well they were challenging him head personally on given statements in the past at a critical pre-election period.”
    At the last UK-wide general election, Lib Dem policy as stated in the manifesto was:

    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.

    so Rennie seems to be overturning that as well.

  • @ Graeme Cowie Of course I don’t deny your right to do what you did.

    What I dispute is your judgement in doing what you did when you did it given that you knowingly challenged the public stance of your Party Leader weeks before an election. Audacity is not the same as good judgement and good timing.

    Incidentally, did you make your views known in East Renfrewshire last May and was it well received ? If a multinational corporation decided to drill there do you reckon your support would increase ?

  • Peter Watson 8th Mar '16 - 4:06pm

    @David Raw “What I dispute is your judgement in doing what you did when you did it given that you knowingly challenged the public stance of your Party Leader weeks before an election.”
    I’ve asked elsewhere so apologies for “stalking” you if you’ve answered it in another thread, but where is the evidence that Willie Rennie’s stance was any sort of longstanding one that delegates at the conference were “challenging”? Googling ‘Wiilie Rennie Fracking’ does not throw up much before the recent events.
    The vote seems consistent with the party’s 2015 General Election manifesto and the voting of its MPs before then so I would suggest that Rennie’s actions weeks before an election are the problem, not those of the members at at the conference.

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