Alexa Morrison, Conservation Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, takes a look at fracking and the different types of unconventional gas proposals coming forward in Scotland.
Fracking is a hot topic in Scotland – what is RSPB Scotland’s position?
Fracking and unconventional gas are coming under some intense heat in Scotland at the moment. You might feel it’s hard to avoid the subject, with even the world’s most famous animated environmentalist, Lisa Simpson, railing against Mr Burns’s plot to frack for shale gas (which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals down wells at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release the gas) below Springfield, in a new episode of the Simpsons this month.
There is certainly a lot to talk about. Plans for what could be the UK’s first commercial-scale coal bed methane extraction at Airth are due to be decided by Scottish Ministers. A vast chunk of Scotland, stretching across the Midland Valley is part of the new round of onshore oil and gas licensing by the UK Government. Companies have just finished bidding for the rights to extract shale gas and coal bed methane.
Areas in red have been offered up to unconventional gas industries in the new round of oil and gas licensing, with yellow areas already licensed. Licensed areas still require planning permission and other environmental consents before they can go ahead.
Recently, Cluff Natural Resources announced that it has estimated there could be up to 335 million tonnes of coal under the Firth of Forth, and it will apply for planning permission for the UK's first underground coal gasification (UCG) plant. Fracking is always required for shale gas, but it is not used for UCG and only sometimes used for coal bed methane extraction – all ‘unconventional gases’ as they are more difficult to extract than conventional reserves. However, this does not mean these technologies are risk-free. On the contrary, they entail a number of environmental risks that we are only just beginning to get to grips with.
In September, when Scotland was reflecting on a big decision of its own, the UK Government announced its decision to allow drilling at depths of at least 300m under properties without the owner’s consent, hoping to make the development process easier for the shale gas industry. What was striking was the weight of public opposition; 99% of respondents to the consultation objected. It’s difficult to recall another consultation producing such a clear message of public disquiet.
RSPB was part of that ignored 99%. We’ve been voicing our concerns about unconventional gas for some time, having set out our position in our ‘Are we fit to frack?’ report, published in March. This was the first assessment of its kind on the likely impacts of shale gas in the UK, and came with ten recommendations to make the (largely untested) regulatory regime more fit for purpose. If allowed to run ahead at pace, fracking could increase fragmentation of habitats, making it more difficult for nature to find a home.
There are risks of water contamination from well failure. We also know climate change is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. Science is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that avoiding dangerous levels means leaving the majority of remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Forging ahead with ‘new frontiers’ of fossil fuels, whether that is shale gas, coal bed methane or UCG, at the time we need to focus on growing green energy, is misguided and could risk becoming ‘locked-in’ to high carbon development.
Gannet colony at Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
So what’s next for unconventional gas in Scotland? The Scottish Government has so far certainly talked about unconventional gas more cautiously that its UK counterparts, but has by no means ruled it out. New Scottish Planning Policy has set out requirements for risk assessments and buffer zones around sensitive areas, and more energy powers for Holyrood (e.g. control over licensing) are being raised in the ‘devo-max’ process. This could allow for decisions to be made closer to where the impacts are, but it is still far from clear how the Scottish Government would use those powers. And ultimately, let’s not forget that Holyrood already has the final say over whether proposals can go ahead, via its control of the planning system.
We hope the Scottish Government will maintain a cautious approach, and listen to the concerns of the public. We need to remain focused on the benefits of energy efficiency and well-sited renewable energy, and crucially also ensure that our special places for wildlife are protected.
What has RSPB done to respond to the risks of unconventional gas?
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, is back with another blog on the For The Love Of campaign we are involved with.
For The Love Of Scottish Machair...
Last week on this blog I wrote about the new climate campaign that we are involved in (FTLO for short). I also gave you the web address so that you can add what you love and why you love it, have you had a go yet? www.rspb.org.uk/fortheloveof
Machair on the Isle of Coll, photo by Jim Densham
Some weeks back I added Scottish Machair to the FTLO website, as the thing I love. Machair is one of Scotland’s most unique and remote habitats, but also a fragile and threatened one. It is basically a low-lying coastal shell-sand rich soil meadow habitat which hosts the most fantastic display of rare flowers in spring and summer.
In the summer of 2012 I visited the Scottish islands of Coll and Tiree during a sabbatical and saw machair for the first time. It was a bit late in the year for the best flower spectacle but still awesome.
Our man on Tiree, John Bowler, showed me ‘The Reef’, a low-lying large flat machair plain to the east and south of the airport, almost bisecting the island. It’s a sensitive spot so not a reserve that the RSPB openly advertises. It’s great for nesting lapwing and for wildfowl in the winter.
Crossapol on the Isle of Tiree, photo by John Bowler
Between The Reef and the sea is a stretch of sand dunes. These are eroding at an alarming rate due to the storms which seem to be more frequent and from a more southerly direction in recent years. At The Reef the sand isn’t blowing inland to create new dunes but rather washing away at a rate of approximately half a metre per year and in some places the dunes are now very low and narrow.
If the sea did wash through the dunes it is hard to say how long any inundation might last or how nature would respond and adapt. Some machair would be lost as the saltwater wouldn’t be favourable to it, instead saltmarsh might take hold permanently.
Hebridean Spotted Orchid at The Reef on Tiree, photo by Jim Densham
Machair is under threat throughout the Hebridean islands because of climate change causing sea level rise and more extreme weather events. Once it’s gone, it’s gone - we can’t just create more of this unique habitat in other places. All we can do is manage the machair that we have so that it is in the best condition possible for the wildlife that depends on it and for us to enjoy.
The best thing to stop the loss of machair is to cut our carbon emissions and put a halt to climate change as soon as we can. So, For The Love Of Scottish Machair, let’s do something about climate change.
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, talks about a new climate change campaign we're working on alongside our partners in Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.
For The Love Of.......
We all know about climate change. We've all heard the arguments and warnings, but it’s still overwhelming, complicated and scary.
I know how it feels, but there is still have hope. Hope because there are things that we all love and care deeply about – things we will fight to protect. Our love and hope are the basis for a new focus for campaigning on climate change in the run up to the big climate change conference in Paris in December 2015.
RSPB Scotland works to protect and save nature because we love it and you love it. Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the wildlife on our planet and we are already seeing some of the impacts on Scotland’s wildlife. That’s why we are dedicated to action on climate change and are working with our partners in Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and the wider UK on the For The Love of... campaign.
Too many of the things we love could be changed forever by climate change, our food, our childrens’ future, our hobbies, our lifestyles our wellbeing, but especially our wonderful nature. Unless politicians know this is something we all care about, they won’t have the mandate to act.
So this is the time for us all to show them that we do care, that this issue is really important to us. The For The Love Of...campaign helps us tell our politicians and world leaders that in Paris we all a new global climate change deal – a new and better Kyoto Protocol.
Some of the love stories people are already sharing online
Everyone has got a love story to share so it would be fantastic if you could share yours too. It’s pretty easy - go to http://www.rspb.org.uk/fortheloveof and share it with others and our politicians, to show how much you care and want action on climate change.
I have already shared my love story – more on that coming soon!