Saturday, 5 March 2016

Libdems and Fracking

The article below first appeared in Libdem Voice, 5th March 2016, in a slightly shorter format.

It seems that there is widespread misunderstanding among the federal party members as to why we here in Scotland decided to end the current moratorium we had on fracking and other non-conventional extraction of hydrocarbons.

Introduced in 2013, the Scottish moratorium on fracking was, as far as one understands it, based upon awaiting further evidence.  The following year, such evidence actually came to light in the form of the Scottish Government's 2014 report: Independent Expert Scientific Panel - Unconventional Oil and Gas.
The report is comprehensive: addressing as it does both the environmental and public concerns.  It comes to the conclusion that, with proper oversight, public consultation and tight planning restrictions, that it is possible to exploit the United Kingdom's potential for future hydrocarbon exploitation.

It was upon the basis of this report that Ewan Hoyle of Glasgow put forward his amendment to end the moratorium on fracking.  At conference, I spoke in support of the amendment on the current state of the industry.  With the oil price currently around $36 a barrel, the North Sea offshore industry has already shed over 70,000 jobs, with the associated knock-on effects throughout the economy.

Ewan also outlined the costs of importing oil and gas abroad, outlining the additional carbon cost of shipping.  I would like to expand upon this point.

The graph comes from the report Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, published in 2013.  It shows that shale gas compares favourably with both non-EU gas imported by pipeline and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) which is the method of importation by tanker.

As an aside, I recently read Norman Baker's biography Against The Grain.  While in government he came forward with the idea of comparing the different forms of oil, gas and coal imports according to their CO2 signatures.  This would have been an extremely good way of helping non-experts (pretty much all of us) when it comes to question whether to import or produce hydrocarbons at home.  Naturally his idea was not accepted by our partners in Coalition

As Liberal Democrats, we can be united in wanting to see the end of global dependency on fossil fuels.  The fact that the UK will still be dependent upon them for the next fifteen to twenty five years has to be addressed.  The issues are not simple.

I want to add to this the issue of not just CO2, which is of course vital, but also that of safety.  To my mind, environmental concerns are global.  This was brought home to me in the mid 1990s by none other that the ecologist and botanist Dr. David Bellamy.   After he gave a talk, I asked him what he thought of the North Sea oil industry.  His answer surprised me.  David Bellamy regarded the North Sea has having the best and highest safety regulations and record in the world.  He said that one had to be very careful in campaigning against oil and gas extraction and gave the example of Conoco in Central America.  Conoco had obtained licences to drill in part of this nation's rainforest and had prepared careful plans to do so with the minimum of ecological impact.  The green campaigners in the USA strongly objected and launched a huge campaign to stop Conoco drilling in the rainforest.  The Greens won: Conoco decided that the adverse publicity was not worth it and withdrew.  Big celebrations among environmentalists.
That still left a poor nation with an unhappy government determined to do its best.  What happened after Conoco pulled out was the government granted licences to some two-bit drilling outfit who didn't give a damn either about its public image and even less about the environment.  The new operators trashed the place.

Since then, I have been working in the oil industry, very much at the sharp end and all over the world.  I found Dr. Bellamy to be correct: the North Sea basin (United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands) is collectively the best, the safest, the cleanest and most regulated oil and gas basin in the world.  Outside Northern Europe, the industry is patchy.  Some of the oil majors do manage to uphold high standards throughout their global operations.  Others say they do, while if the crunch comes and an incident reported, the move is not to investigate but to cover up.
This ought to show that if we in the UK do not use our own expertise, under our own regulations, to the standards applied to the offshore industry, but yet continue to import oil and gas from other parts of the world, we don't really care about the environment.  What we don't know may not upset us but we will be doing nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, accidents and pollution elsewhere.

So it saddens me that we have an email Willie Rennie saying that the policy committee has decided to oppose fracking on the grounds of climate change.  As I have outlined above, this would be factually incorrect and smacks more of popularism than policy.  This drive is from top-down and does not reflect either conference decision nor understanding of the issues.

In campaigning, messages have to be simplified.  What should never, ever happen is that the message dictates the policy.  I get that fracking is not popular but for us to examine the evidence and then campaign against what the evidence says is frankly perverse.  That is one bandwagon that the Liberal Democrats should never jump on.  To do so may lead to some short term success but it will inevitably lead us being hollowed out morally as a party.  The last thing we need to adopt is an opportunistic culture.  Liberal Democrats need to be evidence-based.

Winning is important but if the leadership starts reversing conference decisions because they are politically inconvenient, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of party are we becoming?

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