It is generally agreed that our energy policy should deliver three things: a secure supply; energy at an affordable cost; and energy that is low in climate-changing carbon emissions. In the face of relentless price hikes by the big six energy companies that dominate the United Kingdom market, affordability is very important, particularly here in Scotland, with our northern climate, higher energy prices and rural homes.
If we take into account the impact of price falls in the United States and the fact that gas produces fewer emissions than coal when burned, it is perhaps not surprising that there are advocates for the exploration and extraction of unconventional gas. The Prime Minister has asserted that unconventional gas has “real potential” to drive down energy prices. He assures us that the benefits are clear.
The belief that unconventional gas will push prices down is a false hope, however. Lord Browne, chairperson of the fracking company Cuadrilla and key UK Government adviser, understands that reality. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been forced to understand the same. He told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee that he did not want to “overpromise” on gas prices. The same committee also heard from industry representatives and academics, including Bloomberg, EDF, E.ON and the UK Energy Research Centre, that the impact on household bills is very likely to be insignificant. We can put to bed the argument that unconventional gas is going to make bills cheaper.
Extracting gas onshore in the UK will be much more challenging than doing so in the US. In any case, prices will still be set by the integrated European gas market. For example, Dart Energy will sell to SSE at market rates. Lord Stern was right when he dismissed the Prime Minister’s claims of cheaper energy from shale as “baseless economics.”
It is my view and that of my party and many others that unconventional gas extraction is not a solution to our energy and climate challenges but a symptom of a much wider problem. Having exhausted the easier-to-extract energy sources, we are resorting to more extreme methods of energy extraction. We are digging and drilling deeper into some of the world’s most stunning, pristine and remote locations—and, who knows, possibly soon 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have calculated the amount of carbon emissions that we can safely put into the atmosphere and they 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.
Dart Energy has submitted planning applications for the UK’s first unconventional gas development to involve production rather than solely exploration, 30 or so miles away from this chamber. Experts at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester describe the Government’s approach to unconventional gas as a bellwether of its commitment to leadership on climate change. Senior analysts at French bank Société Générale say that they are looking at what happens in the UK as being at the forefront of the industry in Europe.
Dart Energy’s development is the most advanced unconventional gas project in the UK. In Scotland, we have the opportunity to act on the commitments and promises of leadership on climate change by simply saying no to a whole new set of fossil fuel problems. We can rule unconventional gas out of bounds in Scotland.
Communities around Airth, Falkirk and Stirling have had long-standing concerns about their health and that of the local environment should more coal-bed methane wells go ahead. They were astonished to find out that test drilling had happened without their knowledge. Even a council leader claimed that he was unaware of it.
Campaigners in Canonbie, near Dumfries, continue to fight the threat to their area from the second-most advanced project in Scotland. That project has revealed a loophole whereby permission to extract coal-bed methane could be converted into permission for fracking without proper scrutiny.
A vast area of the central belt can be licensed for unconventional gas. Oil barons from the US are highlighting a process called underground coal gasification, which would involve burning coal seams under the Firth of Forth and off Fife.
I do not want energy projects that threaten the health of communities and local environments. We do not need them. We are at the tipping point of producing the majority of our electricity from renewable sources. Analysis from energy consultants Garrad Hassan in “The Power of Scotland Secured” report from Friends of the Earth shows that, even with a growing demand for electricity, as heating switches from gas to electricity, we can power Scotland with a mix of renewables, pumped storage and a smart grid. That is even before we get better at investing in energy efficiency models.
There is public support for renewables—the level is a whopping 80 per cent, according to the most recent Department of Energy and Climate Change-commissioned poll. We can contrast that with the growing opposition to fracking. YouGov polling that was released yesterday reveals Scotland to be the UK nation that most opposes fracking. Eighty per cent of people opposed UK Government plans to allow underground drilling without landowner permission.
We do not know how much gas is available, but we know that the production time will be measured in years and decades and not in hundreds of years. We know for sure that unconventional gas will require a multimillion-pound investment and that production will not peak for another decade—and probably more—just as we plan to decarbonise.
We all know that we have, unfortunately, missed the first two of our climate targets. Even though the emissions trend is going in the right direction, it is vital to bolster the credibility of our world-leading legislation. The third target will be reported on soon.
“The Energy Report” by WWF concluded that by 2050 all the world’s energy could be provided cleanly, renewably and affordably. The report looked at barriers to the transition. One of the biggest barriers is that, globally, more money is being invested in dirty fossil fuels than in clean renewables.
In its briefing for the debate, WWF Scotland says:
“Having rightly attracted the attention of the world for its ambitious Climate Change Act and its commitment to climate justice, it’s critical that the Scottish Government and Parliament now fulfil the promises under the Act and reap the benefits presented by the low-carbon transition ... Scotland’s commitments to meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act, its international reputation for climate change, its policy to decarbonise the energy system ... and its 100% renewables target will seriously lack credibility if Scotland were to go down the route of facilitating or encouraging an alternative fossil fuel.”
With WWF and Friends of the Earth Scotland, I urge the Government to say no to unconventional gas extraction in Scotland. A ban on unconventional gas in Scotland would focus our efforts on truly renewable sources, rather than scraping the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel.
That the Parliament notes the significant public opposition to new methods of fossil fuel extraction such as fracking and coal-bed methane; notes that energy companies already hold far more fossil fuel reserves than it is safe to burn; agrees with the UK Energy and Climate Change Committee and many others, such as the chairman of Cuadrilla and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that developing unconventional gas in the UK will likely have no effect on the cost of energy for households; opposes the UK Government’s extensive tax breaks for the industry and what it sees as a bribe to local authorities to approve development; supports communities in Falkirk, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway and across the central belt who are campaigning against unconventional gas, and calls on the Scottish Government to implement a ban on unconventional fossil fuel extraction in Scotland in order to protect communities, safeguard local environments and focus investment on renewable energy, given the importance of meeting all targets under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, the third of which is due to be reported to the Parliament imminently.