The Highland News, July 2014
Readers in the Highlands are most likely aware of the process of fracking. In the USA, the enthusiastic exploitation of this method of unconventional gas extraction has brought fuel prices down by about two-thirds and added a boost to an economy emerging from recession.
An expert group commissioned by the Scottish Government has recently found there to be no significant technological barriers to the development of such an industry in the UK, and that where these gas reserves exist they can be extracted safely, concluding that fracking could deliver many benefits for Scotland, including job creation, increased tax revenues and investment.
Serious concerns remain however about fracking – concerns that it could ruin the countryside, pollute water supplies, destabilise fragile environments and even trigger earthquakes. I regularly receive correspondence from constituents concerned about fracking, cold bed methane and shale gas, and asking if there are European regulations regarding the exploration and extraction of these new energy sources.
In fact, individual Member States of the EU are completely free to decide whether or not to exploit any resources on their own territory. In Scotland, although energy policy is the responsibility of the UK government, the Scottish Government is in control of approving major planning applications.
The only tangible way that the EU can have influence is through the environmental and health and safety laws that must be followed - most of which are already integrated into national rules. In Scotland these regulations are overseen by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
Readers in the Highlands concerned about the negative consequences of fracking may take some comfort from a recent British Geological Survey (BGS) finding shale gas reserves in Scotland to be a fraction of those in northern England. It did however highlight an area in central Scotland including Glasgow, Falkirk and Edinburgh – to show some shale gas below ground. The dilemma here would be that these reserves are in and around the most densely populated parts of the country.
Labour MEPs believe shale gas alone won't be able to supply all our energy needs but if perhaps environmentally responsible exploration could contribute to an energy mix in the transition to renewables then the approach should be to foster mature debate, to stick to our climate change commitments and to ensure that fracking takes place only in a strict regulatory environment with a framework in place to evaluate, early on, the full potential impact of this activity on the environment and human health.
A vote on a revised European-wide Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) took place in the European Parliament's environment committee last year. Labour MEPs supported an amendment to include all unconventional fossil fuels (such as shale gas and fracking) in these assessments, and, importantly, that the assessments be for both the exploration, and the extraction of these energy sources. We were disappointed that the European Commission - under pressure from David Cameron and the UK government – chose not to support this legislation. In the European Parliament we have used what powers we have on this issue.