Meeting date: Thursday, March 30, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 30 March 2017
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Elmwood Campus, Mental Health Strategy, Transvaginal Mesh Implants, Unconventional Oil and Gas, Enterprise and Skills Review, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Elmwood Campus
- Mental Health Strategy
- Transvaginal Mesh Implants
- Unconventional Oil and Gas
- Enterprise and Skills Review
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
Unconventional Oil and Gas
The next item of business is a statement by Paul Wheelhouse on unconventional oil and gas. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.15:45
I welcome the opportunity to update Parliament on our consultation on unconventional oil and gas.
The Scottish Government has continually presented impartial, independent information on unconventional oil and gas in order to encourage informed public discussion and debate and our consultation is a continuation of that approach. Our consultation, “Talking ‘Fracking’”, which we launched on 31 January 2017, does not set out a specific policy proposal but instead presents evidence and gives the public, businesses and organisations across Scotland the opportunity to consider and express their views on the evidence. That is a unique and important approach that demonstrates our commitment to exploring both the evidence and the views of people across Scotland without bias or prejudgment and I will maintain that neutral position today.
Unconventional oil and gas is a complex and controversial issue that has stimulated intense debate, motivated by deeply held and sincere views on all sides. Therefore, our approach remains one of caution while we gather and consider evidence and the views of the public on the issue.
Our cautious and evidence-led approach is the right approach. It has been widely supported by communities, industry and other interested parties. There are some who wish to pursue a gung-ho approach, either towards extraction or towards a ban, and who have put forward their own views without due concern for the differing interests and views of those who would be affected. It is the job of the Government—and one I take seriously—to base our decisions on evidence, while taking proper account of public opinions, and to seek a collective way forward. As I have stressed before to the Parliament, at each step towards reaching a final decision, we must take a careful, considered and evidence-led approach, and we must do that alongside an informed public debate.
Most of Scotland’s unconventional oil and gas deposits occur in and around former coalfields and oil shale fields in Scotland’s central belt, which are among the most densely populated parts of our country, as well as in the area around Canonbie in Dumfriesshire. Scotland needs safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy to underpin the Scottish economy and to contribute to the wellbeing of our society. Scotland must also continue to demonstrate strong leadership on climate change, which is an issue in which everyone across Scotland has an interest. That is why it is so important not only that we consult local communities in the central belt and Dumfriesshire but that we give communities, business and interest groups from around Scotland an opportunity to put their views across.
It is also important to remember that this is not an issue that exists in isolation—the future of all potential energy sources must be viewed in the context of Scotland’s wider energy strategy. The choices that Scotland makes about energy are among the most important decisions that we face. Our energy industry provides high-quality jobs and a vibrant climate for innovation. Affordable energy provision is a prerequisite for healthy, fulfilling living and productive, competitive business.
Achieving our vision for energy is also crucial to efforts to tackle fuel poverty and to prevent the damaging effects of climate change, as part of the global community’s fight to limit global temperature increases to 2°C or less.
The Scottish Government is determined to support a stable, managed transition to a low-carbon economy in Scotland. However, our draft energy strategy also makes clear our commitment to the oil and gas industry throughout the energy transition. Oil and gas are a highly regulated and stable source of energy from an industry that provides an estimated 124,500 high-value jobs and the skills and expertise to meet the needs of the energy system of the future.
Our draft energy strategy for Scotland also sets out the Scottish Government’s position on underground coal gasification. We took that position after a carefully considered period of evidence gathering. In my statement to Parliament on 6 October 2016, I confirmed that underground coal gasification poses numerous serious environmental risks and should have no place in Scotland’s energy mix at this time. As a result, our energy strategy sets out an energy mix for the future that does not include underground coal gasification.
Our draft energy strategy is stimulating well-informed debate on the energy challenges in Scotland and policies needed to meet our aspirations to deliver a secure, sustainable energy future for all. I am very keen to ensure that our energy strategy is infused with the thoughts and views of people from right across Scotland and I strongly encourage everyone to participate prior to the consultation closing date of 30 May. The results of the consultation on unconventional oil and gas will be a key consideration in finalising our energy strategy later this year.
I now wish to update the chamber on the Scottish Government’s programme of evidence gathering and public consultation on unconventional oil and gas. To allow us to gather evidence and prepare for a full public consultation, the Scottish Government put in place a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas in January 2015. That means that no such projects can take place. For the avoidance of any doubt, the moratorium covers hydraulic fracturing—also known as fracking—and coal bed methane extraction technologies.
In support of our cautious, evidence-led approach towards unconventional oil and gas, the Scottish Government has taken steps to establish a comprehensive evidence base on which to consider the future of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland. In 2013, the Scottish Government asked an independent expert scientific panel to examine the scientific evidence on unconventional oil and gas in Scotland. When the panel reported in July 2014, it identified a number of key gaps in the evidence base.
On 8 October 2015, we set out details of the consultation timetable and the programme of gathering further evidence to address the gaps identified by the panel.
The Scottish Government reached a major milestone in November 2016 when we published a comprehensive suite of expert reports examining potential social, economic and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas in more detail. The research was carried out by leading independent experts in their respective fields and the findings deepen our understanding of the issues. As we set out when we established the moratorium, the publication of the research has been followed by a period in which we and the public have had the opportunity to scrutinise and discuss the findings, prior to the launch of the public consultation.
I am confident that the reports that we have published deepen our knowledge of the evidence and shed light on the issues and choices that this industry presents. Now that the public and members have had time to examine the reports’ conclusions in detail, I am sure that it is clear to all that no one study can give a conclusive view on the industry and whether it has a place in Scotland’s energy mix. Some will say that the research shows that the economic impact is low and the environmental, health and climate change risks are too great; others will say that, with regulation, the risks can be managed and that the potential economic gain cannot be ignored. The reports rightly do not make recommendations on whether unconventional oil and gas should be permitted. However, the science and evidence that are contained within them inform the debate and discussion.
To support that dialogue and debate, on 31 January the Scottish Government published its consultation on unconventional oil and gas, “Talking ‘Fracking’”. To provide time for full and considered debate, and to give the public and stakeholders time to respond, the consultation will last for four months, closing on 31 May. We have created a number of innovative ways for the public to engage in the consultation. In addition to the consultation document, we have launched a temporary unconventional oil and gas website, which is also called “Talking ‘Fracking’”. The site has been designed to provide a user-friendly route to accessing all the materials and evidence that support the consultation. I encourage those who wish to explore the issues further to visit the site.
To help the consultation to reach a range of audiences, the consultation document is available in alternative formats, which can be requested from the Scottish Government, including easy read, large print, Braille, British Sign Language and other languages. We have also made provision to receive responses in alternative formats, for example spoken responses or languages other than English.
Importantly, we have prepared a discussion toolkit, which has been designed to help communities and stakeholders to explore and discuss the issues in groups. The results of those discussions can be submitted to the Scottish Government and will be treated as a formal response to the consultation. I am pleased to inform Parliament that my officials have received a high volume of requests for consultation materials, including the discussion packs. I assure Parliament of the robust steps that the Scottish Government took to ensure that the evidence that is presented in the consultation and supporting materials is accurate and impartial. That included using direct quotes from the research projects and seeking assurance from the research contractors that our summaries are accurate.
We have also undertaken a number of actions to promote the consultation via the local and national press. The consultation is being promoted through our digital and social media channels, and via direct correspondence with a range of stakeholders, including community councils. We are seeing a strong response to the consultation—into five figures so far—and are satisfied that that level of participation indicates that the consultation is being viewed as a valuable process by the public.
As I set out on 6 October 2016, we are adopting a carefully considered process for reaching a decision on the future of unconventional oil and gas that ensures that the views of the public, the evidence base and the views of Parliament are fully considered. Once the consultation closes and the results have been independently analysed and published, I reiterate our previous commitment to present our recommendation to Parliament and provide an opportunity to vote on it. After that, the Scottish Government will come to a considered judgment on the future of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland. We will, of course, respect the will of the Parliament on the issue, while following the statutory assessments and procedures required. Our carefully considered approach to reaching a final position on unconventional oil and gas will ensure that we make the right choice for Scotland, founded on the best available evidence. Given the significance of the issue, I am confident that that is the right and proper way to proceed.
I thank the minister for advance notice of his statement. With such anticipation of his statement, I can only describe our disappointment with how little it says. While many of us would have been hoping for progress in exploring Scotland’s untapped riches, there was also a fear that an outright ban was the price of Green subservience on Tuesday. However, the statement is neither of those. Talking fracking, and no action, as usual. Given that communities such as Croy, Cumbernauld and Coatbridge are waiting to gain hundreds of millions of pounds through a share of the proceeds, will the minister, today, finally give us a date for when a decision will be made?
True to form, Mr Burnett strikes again. Mr Burnett knows that our position on these emerging energy technologies has been consistent, credible and evidenced. It is also in line with our manifesto, on which we were overwhelmingly elected in May last year. Until recently, our steadfast evidence-led approach to underground coal gasification was indeed heavily criticised by Mr Burnett and others in the Scottish Conservatives, only for the United Kingdom Government to belatedly follow Scotland’s lead and move towards a position of not supporting the industry on climate change grounds.
I have noted, as I am sure have many in the chamber, that the Scottish Conservatives made no reference to their position on underground coal gasification in their recently published environment policy paper, and of course Mr Burnett and his colleagues have a history of flip-flopping on issues to do with oil and gas.
Oh, the irony!
Last year, we were told—this is a serious point that Mr Fraser might want to listen to—that the Conservatives had secured a deal for the oil and gas industry from George Osborne. Of course, he was out in the reshuffle. [Interruption.] Before the spring budget, the Conservatives told us that the oil and gas industry did not need any additional support in the budget. The chancellor then recognised that it was the Scottish Government that had been pressing for changes in the fiscal regime to help the oil and gas industry.
I will get on with doing the job that I am doing—I was elected on a mandate to do exactly what I am doing—and I will leave it to Mr Burnett to sit and scream from the sidelines.
In May 2016, this Parliament voted to ban fracking. In November 2016, the minister came before Parliament with expert reports and told us that he was cautious and consulting. Now he is back here telling us again that he is consulting cautiously. What we have had, frankly, after 15 minutes of the minister talking, is a repeat of what we had in November—nothing but padding, nothing new, nothing that delivers on the promises of Scottish National Party candidates across the country to ban fracking, and nothing that delivers on the will of Parliament.
The minister tells us that we will get a vote in Parliament—that is kind of him—but then he says that the Scottish Government will decide anyway. You could not make it up. However, we have already had a vote in Parliament, so can the minister tell me whether this is a bit like the independence referendum? Will we just keep having vote after vote until he gets the answer that he wants?
Let us get some things straight. First, the Opposition asked for a statement in the middle of the consultation period and we are happy to provide a statement to update the chamber on progress. I would have thought that Ms Baillie would welcome that.
Ms Baillie also refers to the fact that we have not made a decision. We are within the consultation period. It is normal practice to wait until a consultation is over before reaching a conclusion, especially a consultation that involves listening to the views of the people of Scotland. I would have thought that Ms Baillie would want to hear what the people of Scotland have to say about fracking before reaching a position and that she would also be mindful of the fact that we need to be in an evidence-based position before making a decision.
I am keeping true to what I said when I launched the consultation and when I made a statement in November—that we will give Parliament a decision on the issue and that we will have to take account of other statutory procedures that then follow. However, I assure Ms Baillie that we will be listening to the will of Parliament at that time.
We move to questions from the rest of the chamber. Eleven members want to ask questions and we have 17 minutes, so I want questions not opening statements. I call Angus MacDonald and ask him to set an example.
The minister will be aware of the concerns in my constituency regarding the environmental risks of fracking in the Falkirk district and the wider Forth valley. He will also be aware of the 15-year contract signed by Ineos for the supply of shale gas from the US for its Grangemouth plant; it puts the future of the plant on a sure footing, which is extremely welcome.
Does the minister agree with me that as long as there is any prospect of environmental risk, there is no need for a dash for gas in Scotland, and can he reassure my constituents in Falkirk East, who are deeply concerned about the potential impact of the fracking industry on their lives?
I want to acknowledge first and foremost that Mr MacDonald has been consistent in his desire to express the views of his constituents in Falkirk East. He raises important points. He is indeed correct that Ineos has secured a long-term supply of shale gas for the Grangemouth plant and we continue to support the plant as a key employer for his constituency and neighbouring constituencies.
We are taking a very cautious approach here—we want to take account of the environmental impact, the economic impact and the impact on climate change and other factors before we reach a considered decision. I assure Mr MacDonald that we will very much take into account environmental considerations in reaching a decision.
KPMG’s modelling, which was commissioned by the SNP Government, stated that community benefit payments could be almost as high as £1 billion. Parliament still requires a date for the decision, but if unconventional oil and gas extraction is permitted, would the SNP Government support a community benefit fund?
As Mr Golden will know, community benefits are not taken into account in planning decisions in any case, and I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the consultation. We will have to look very carefully at the science around the environmental impact, at the economic impact and take into account public opinion before we reach a decision.
I am aware of suggestions in relation to community benefit, but we are focusing first and foremost on the questions that are raised in the consultation. I advise Mr Golden and all other members in the chamber to encourage their constituents to take part in the consultation so that we receive the broadest possible range of views from communities in Scotland. We will listen to the people and study the evidence that is submitted to us, and then we will come to a decision.
Can the minister assure us that he will hold his nerve and listen to the public, and that he will not be swayed by the extremists on either side?
I have to be careful here, as I do not want to upset any member in the chamber. We are listening to a range of views and doing all that we can to listen to all those who have an interest in the subject. One of the real merits of having a consultation is that it gives people an opportunity to have their say on the evidence—if they disagree with it, they can put counter-evidence—and we can ultimately come to a view that is based on that evidence.
We have an independent analysis of the responses, which will allow us to look at the breadth of views that have been submitted. I assure the member that I will stay true to our commitment to listen to the people of Scotland, who have a very important role in the process, and to consider seriously all the scientific evidence that has been presented to us. I will not be swayed by people at either end of the spectrum who are not prepared to listen to reason.
I will be as reasonable as possible. The minister has just spent 10 minutes of Parliament’s time telling us nothing new of substance. That comes after he has spent 10 months actively ignoring—to be frank—the will of Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has already voted for a ban on onshore fracking—I remember that, as it was in my amendment to the Government’s motion. When will the minister finally accept that, on the basis of the irrefutable climate science alone, my proposal for a bill to ban fracking onshore in Scotland is the best way forward for a sustainable future for the people?
First, I recognise that Claudia Beamish has a genuine interest in the issue, and I would not describe her in any way as an extremist.
As to ignoring the will of the Parliament, we gave a very important commitment to the people of Scotland in the manifesto on which we were elected, which was that we would have an extensive, evidence-based process to decide our position on fracking. That is the commitment that we stood on, and that is what we, as a Government, are fulfilling. I believe that that is the right thing to do, because it will be fair to all sides—we will listen to the evidence from all sides and ultimately take a decision that is based on that evidence and on the views of the communities that would be most affected by fracking.
I know that Claudia Beamish has taken a great interest in the issue in preparing her bill proposal. As she knows, the areas that would be affected are largely in the most densely populated parts of our country, so there is huge interest in the issue among Scotland’s communities, and we want to give people the chance to have a say. That is a very important part of the process to which we are committed.
On the point about irrefutable science, the very point of having a consultation exercise is to put the science out there and allow people to challenge it if it is inaccurate in any way, and to receive counter-evidence. That is a responsible thing to do, and it means that, when we reach a decision, it will be seen to be entirely fair and we can—I hope—all stand behind it in the Parliament.
It seems that the minister has come to the chamber once again to say that now is not the time for a decision on fracking. I respect the fact that he has a timetable and that he has emphasised the importance of a legally binding and watertight decision, whatever that decision may be.
How important is the consultation and the response to it in delivering a legally binding decision? If the minister does not get the level of detail and the number of responses that he hopes to get, will that jeopardise the decision, whatever it is?
First, I may have missed this out in my statement, as I did not go into the subject of consultation in great depth, but we have already received a five-figure number of responses, so it is clear that we are getting a very good response. I could not tell the member the composition of those answers, because they have been gathered independently and I do not want to interfere in the process, but I assure him that there is strong participation in the consultation exercise.
That is important, because the issue affects many communities across Scotland in the areas where the activity is proposed to take place. It is only right that those communities have a say as to whether they value their environment and the consideration of climate change impacts over the potential economic impacts to which the Conservatives and others have referred.
It is very important to hear what the people of Scotland have to say, feed that into the decision making and then make a recommendation to the Parliament. Ultimately, the members in this chamber will have a very important role in the process, because we will put a recommendation to them and give them the chance to say where they think we should go on the issue of fracking.
I thank the minister for an advance copy of his statement. There is nothing new in it, but it reminds us that he continues to flout the will of Parliament. Has he had his ears boxed by the First Minister for doing so?
I do not know how things worked in the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive, but we work as a team in this Government. The one thing that I would say to Mr Rennie, in all seriousness—
Minister, can you speak into the microphone, please?
Apologies, Presiding Officer.
It is Mr Rennie’s view that there is nothing new in the statement. We are updating Parliament on the progress of our consultation; we are sticking to the deadlines that we have committed to and there is no change in them; and we are trying to respect Parliament by agreeing to requests from members to give a statement to the chamber, including one from Mr Rennie’s colleague Liam McArthur. Mr Rennie would do well to recognise that.
We are certainly sticking to the process in our manifesto, on which we were elected. I believe that that process has been backed by a number of key stakeholders, who have said that it is exactly the right thing to do, including many in the media and the trade union movement and others. Mr Rennie might not like it, but we are doing what we promised to do and I think that we are doing it well.
What engagement has the Scottish Government had with stakeholders during its investigation into the impact of fracking?
Clare Haughey has raised a very important point. We have carefully listened to our stakeholders in shaping the consultation. They had a big part in designing the consultation, which is an important point to make. I have met key groups representing the full range of views on the issue of fracking and, indeed, my officials have held a series of workshops with stakeholders on how best to encourage participation, a report on which is publicly available on our website. Stakeholder interest has been crucial in forming our approach to the consultation. That just goes to show the importance of having a consultation and listening to people, because there is a range of strongly held views on both sides of the debate. Of course, no consultation will ever be perfect, but we have done our best to ensure that we try to take on board all the different points.
Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority ordered Friends of the Earth to stop publishing misleading claims about the impact of fracking on health and on the contamination of drinking water. How will the Scottish Government ensure that the public responses to its consultation are not influenced by irresponsible scaremongering and lies spread by so-called environmental groups seeking to slant unfairly the responses that are received?
I am not keen on the word “lies” in your question, even though you are not accusing anybody in here.
I will not make a judgment on any material from either side that has been put out there. We have taken a conscious decision to commission independent evidence, which we believe is objective. We have made it our business to ensure that the consultation documents are as neutrally worded as we can make them so that we can be fair to arguments from both sides. We have avoided promulgating material from various campaign groups in order to avoid being accused, perhaps by Mr Fraser or others in this chamber, of promoting incorrect information.
We have tried to stick to what was commissioned on a scientific basis. The chief scientific officer looked at the consultation documents and they were heavily scrutinised before they went out into the public domain in order to ensure that they were as neutrally worded as possible and that we did not provide leading or prejudicial information or responses. We can do only what we can do, and we have tried to make sure that that information is as accessible to the public as possible. Indeed, the members in this chamber can help with that.
My constituents will welcome the chance to participate in the consultation process. However, on another matter, can the minister tell us why unconventional oil and gas does not feature in the climate change plan?
That is a good point. I know that it has been raised in the chamber previously, but Christina McKelvie is right to raise it now. Unconventional oil and gas is currently covered by a moratorium, so there is no unconventional oil and gas activity happening in Scotland. Thankfully, since we intervened, the UK Government has not issued any new licences for that activity in Scotland while our deliberations are continuing. I give a commitment that while we are considering the issue, no fracking or unconventional gas activities will commence in Scotland. That is why, as the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform has stated previously, unconventional oil and gas is not reflected in the climate change plan. Of course, if there was a change in the policy position, she would have to look at the matter again, but as the position is that there is no fracking, it is not in the plan.
Who did the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work meet this morning at the site of the biggest shale gas exploration licence holder in Scotland—Ineos in Grangemouth—in advance of the minister’s statement to Parliament this afternoon? What was discussed at that meeting and will the Scottish Government publish the minutes of it?
As I am sure that Mr Leonard knows, the cabinet secretary met representatives of Ineos this morning, at their request, to discuss issues raised by the trade unions. There was no discussion about our unconventional oil and gas consultation. As for publishing minutes, I am not sure that that is appropriate for a private meeting, but I will leave the member to raise that with the cabinet secretary.
The minister has spoken about what he is doing in regard to the consultation, but can he expand further on the other actions that he can take to encourage people to submit their views to the consultation on fracking?
That is an important point. The clock is running down and we want to get as many responses to the consultation as we can, to ensure that we have as representative a view of the people of Scotland as possible. We will continue to use social media, the traditional media and other channels, and I urge MSPs and councillors and candidates throughout the country to encourage their constituents to take part in the consultation exercise and to give their views. It is important, because of the location of the sites, that we take full account of the views of the people of Scotland. There are also issues that affect communities the length and breadth of Scotland, such as the impact on climate change, so it is important for everybody in Scotland who wants to take part to do so. I thank the member for raising that point, and I encourage all members to continue to promote the consultation.
I thank everybody for rattling through their questions. We got through them all.