A “moratorium” is supposed to mean putting a stop to something, at least temporarily. But in the case of fracking, the Scottish National Party (SNP) seems to think it means funding it.
Incredibly, under the guise of its “cautious, considered and evidenced-based approach to fracking”, the SNP is funding test drilling.
It halted all planning consents for unconventional gas extraction (UGE) in Scotland in January 2015.
But this only applied to commercial operations—none of which were happening yet anyway. It didn’t apply to exploration.
One thing the moratorium did achieve was gazumping Labour.
SNP energy minister Fergus Ewing announced it days after then Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy pledged to ban fracking using powers promised in the Scotland Bill.
The SNP owned the issue and “Frack Off” became a key slogan for its general election campaign. Though it wasn’t the main reason for the SNP landslide, it was used to great effect.
But throughout 2015 things started to unravel.
And just as the 100-day countdown to Scotland’s May elections started last week, a row over the SNP’s spring conference (see below) reignited controversy over its links to big business.
There’s one question that won’t go away. Did SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon do a deal with Jim Ratcliffe, hated billionaire owner of energy giant Ineos?
This is the same anti-union boss who blackmailed workers and the Scottish government over threats to close the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant in late 2013.
Last year it was revealed that Sturgeon met with Ratcliffe the same day her government announced the moratorium. The SNP has blocked the full release of the minutes.
Curiously Ineos dropped opposition to a moratorium almost as soon as the meeting was over.
It didn’t seem like a firm worried about its £640 million planned investment in fracking, or its fracking licences for 700 square miles of central Scotland. Ratcliffe confirmed, “The Scottish government are quite clear. What they’ve said to us is, they’re not against fracking.”
Ineos reportedly paid £4,000 for a fracking stall at SNP annual conference last October.
This was around the same time the SNP announced an extension of the moratorium to Underground Coal Gasification—but also an 18-month programme of test drilling.
This has all helped fuel suspicion that the moratorium was designed to placate activists and make sure
nothing upsets the plan for a third consecutive SNP term in office.
With this pro-business streak at the heart of the SNP, stopping fracking in Scotland will depend on the pressure a mass movement can bring to bear.
No debate but lots of excuses as conference looms
SNP members are now being told that fracking won’t be on the agenda of its spring conference—because it has been fully debated.
But a mood in support of banning fracking was clear at last October’s conference and this has party leaders worried.
They know any motion calling for a ban could be voted through and become SNP policy—putting its relationship with polluting bosses at risk.
That a motion proposed by at least 16 branches can be blocked reveals the state of SNP democracy.
In a statement SNP Members Against Unconventional Gas said, “We have not been allowed to debate a complete ban nor to have a full, open debate.”
Most of the media reported the October conference debate as members voting against an all-out ban as if in support of fracking. Strange, since no one spoke in favour of fracking.
SNP leaders also worry that a debate could expose what they are not doing.
One argument made in defence of the SNP government’s lack of clarity on fracking is that it has no powers to ban it.
But this hasn’t stopped it rightly saying nuclear weapons should be scrapped.
The SNP could block fracking with existing powers.
A ban in Northern Ireland, while not perfect, shows that devolved administrations are not powerless.
All UGE licences are subject to local planning permissions. Why can’t rules be tightened to look unfavourably on UGE applications?
Why couldn’t authorities in Scotland prevent drilling within 2km of people’s homes, as Australia has done? This could be applied in Scotland using devolved environmental powers.
Even though energy policy is reserved to Westminster, the SNP rightly blocked new nuclear power plants using planning powers.
So where is the SNP’s commitment to a “clean, green energy future” when it comes to fracking?
Oil barons launch job massacre
A global plunge in oil prices has devastated jobs in Scotland’s offshore sector. Over 65,000 jobs have been axed.
That’s “equivalent to the closure of a steel plant every week for the last year”, according to RMT union regional organiser Jake Molloy.
Bosses have hammered workers with new contracts that impose longer shifts offshore and attack terms and conditions.
But when it comes to their attitudes to these oil and gas barons there is not much between the SNP and the Tories at Westminster.
Last week they announced £500 million for the offshore bosses in deals with Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire councils.
The Tories’ new Energy Bill “will lock in the shift increases, pay and terms and condition cuts,” RMT said.
The SNP government’s Jobs Task Force has helped a tiny fraction of these workers while it has called for more tax breaks for the bosses.
It is all too little too late for the workers sacrificed by the bosses to preserve their profits.