Paul Cairney discusses fracking and how the political parties deal with uncertainty.
Update 28.1.15 The Scottish Government announced a ‘moratorium’ on fracking in Scotland, to give it time to gather more evidence, partly through a public consultation.
[27.1.15] MPs voted yesterday not to have a moratorium on fracking in the UK. Instead, via the Infrastructure Bill, the UK Government continued its plans to reduce some planning obstacles while accepting Labour amendments on further environmental regulations. Labour presented this move as a ‘u turn’ when, in fact, both parties appear to be pro-fracking under the right circumstances, as opposed to the Greens, who oppose it unequivocally.
The Scottish dimension regarded a Labour amendment to accelerate the Smith Commission proposal, accepted by the UK Government, to devolve a further aspect of fracking (the licensing of firms to drill). The UK Government rejected this move, but agreed to exempt Scotland from the new planning changes in the Bill.
Still, in the most important sense, the Scottish Government controls the fate of fracking policy. It shares responsibility – with the EU, UK, public bodies, and local authorities – for the introduction of test drilling and commercial fracking, but can stop development at any time through its planning powers. The question is: who wants it to do so? The answer is: we don’t yet know.
My impression is that the two main Scottish parties do not want to tie themselves to a pledge to ban fracking forevermore. Right now, they want to look like they want to ban fracking but keep their options open while they obfuscate (to buy time to see what happens in England). For example, the SNP MPs voted yesterday for a moratorium in the UK, but its MSPs have not done likewise in the Scottish Parliament. [Update 28.1.15 See Energy Minister Fergus Ewing’s announcement of a moratorium! The stated aim is to allow him to gather more evidence and conduct a public consultation]. It focuses on a cautious wait and see what the evidence tells us approach in Scotland, combined with the usual focus on the constitution: complaining that the Conservative-led Government is imposing fracking changes in Scotland. Labour MPs proposed (successfully) amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to introduce further environmental regulations but abstained on the moratorium. It has called on the SNP to put a stop to fracking in Scotland, but its plans instead involve calling for a ‘freeze’ on fracking until the case is made (I don’t know how a freeze differs from a moratorium), and proposing a ‘triple lock’ which keeps the option open. The approach of both parties is as clear as mud compared to the Greens on the one hand (keep it in the ground) and the UK Conservatives on the other (‘all out for shale’) (one exception is the relatively clear statement by Sheila Gilmore MP). Still, from what they say, we can conclude that the SNP and Scottish Labour support commercial fracking if their conditions are met. This is conditional support, not outright opposition, and the main differences between them are in presentation rather than substance.
Part of the problem for these parties is that there is so much uncertainty, not only about the issue itself (‘the evidence’ will never tell you what to do, and scientists won’t make the decision for you), but about what the public wants. Only one Scottish-specific poll is available. Table 22 of a Survation poll in January 2015 has 23.6% responding ‘I support fracking in Scotland’, 44.5% ‘I oppose fracking in Scotland’ and 31.9% ‘don’t know’ (there is more support among men and more ‘don’t knows’ among women). Further, 55.4% of those voting SNP in 2010 and 52.1% Labour are opposed (supporters of the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are more in favour). This contrasts with a separate, more regular, UK survey, showing that 21% more people say yes than no when asked, ‘Should shale gas extraction in the UK be allowed?’ (although they find similar party political differences).
The figures might show that Scottish residents are less keen than the UK as a whole, and that an open-ended cautious approach is the best strategy for both main parties. Or, it shows the important difference between in principle support across the UK and concrete support for specific drills in local areas. The same pattern might be found in England, or the England experience might show that governments can persuade and give enough incentives to secure sufficient local consent. We don’t yet know, because policy is progressing slowly (at least compared to places like the US), local opinion data is scarce, and about 30% of the public still doesn’t know what fracking is. Think of the contrast between the huge amount of data we had on attitudes to a simple question on independence – which still didn’t settle the matter. With fracking, many of the political parties look hesitant because they don’t yet know how to deal with uncertainty.