The Scottish Government has put in place a moratorium on underground coal gasification (UCG) further underlining its guarded approach to unconventional extraction of such resources. Despite having earlier indicated that the Scottish Government did not have sufficient powers to invoke a moratorium on UCG, Fergus Ewing, Energy Minister for Scotland announced on Thursday 8 October that: “In line with our evidence-led approach we are today also putting in place a moratorium on the onshore planning of underground coal gasification developments to allow time for full and careful consideration of the potential impacts of this technology for Scotland.”
This follows the announcement in January 2015 of a moratorium on the granting of consents for “unconventional oil and gas developments” until further research and a public consultation is carried out.
The standstill on UCG in Scotland, which is being dealt with separately from onshore unconventional oil and gas (including fracking), has forced Cluff Natural Resources to pause its plans to extract gas from coal beds under the Firth of Forth at Kincardine until a decision has been reached on the technique.
However it appears that companies will have to wait longer than expected for clarity on the position. A detailed timetable for the research process and consultation has been published which indicates that a final decision will not be taken on the matter until Spring 2017. While the programme is comprehensive, the Scottish Government has been criticised for the length of time taken to reach a decision, particularly as no determination will have been made prior to the 2016 elections.
It was also confirmed that the research parameters into onshore unconventional oil and gas extraction will be widened so as to take into account the potential effects of the technique on climate change, the risk of earthquakes as a result of extraction and the requirements that should be put in place for decommissioning.
Moves have also been made in the approach to onshore unconventional oil and gas and UCG in Northern Ireland. On 28 September 2015 the Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan published the Strategic Planning Policy Statement for Northern Ireland (SPPS). The statement combined twenty separate policy publications into one base document. For the first time the statement enshrines the onshore unconventional oil and gas and UCG ban in planning policy. The guidance given being that “in relation to unconventional hydrocarbon extraction there will be a presumption against their exploitation until there is sufficient and robust evidence on all environmental impacts”.
This wording leaves the position open to change subject to the Department being satisfied that there is sufficient and robust evidence proving the controversial shale gas extraction method is safe and does not damage the environment, but until that point there will to be no fracking or UCG in Northern Ireland.
While the decision has unsurprisingly been welcomed by many environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, there has been some opposition. MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson has raised his concerns over the legitimacy of the policy claiming that the Mr Durkan was not entitled to make a unilateral decision on the subject: "For the minister to make such a policy statement without referring it to the Executive is totally illegal. It's controversial, cross-cutting and novel. I imagine that it will be stopped by the Executive."
In February 2015 the Welsh Assembly voted for a moratorium on fracking with Planning Minister Carl Sargeant claiming: “I will be stopping any local authority approving any planning application for fracking.” The decision was met with some defiance from gas company IGas who denied that the Welsh Government had authority to stop fracking, pointing to their lack of devolved powers. However the UK Government has stated that while the Welsh Government does not currently hold the devolved powers to impose such a ban, no new licences will be awarded in Wales for fracking in light of the fact that the powers over licensing are due to be devolved as part of the Wales Bill. A petition to the Minister for Natural Resources, calling for an extension of the moratorium to include UCG, is currently being considered at Committee stage.
Such an anti-unconventional hydrocarbon stance is not echoed throughout the whole of the UK. In England steps have recently been taken to prevent oil and gas companies being deterred from submitting planning applications for shale gas exploration due to slow decision making processes. On 13 August 2015, the Department of Energy & Climate Change with the Department for Communities and Local Government, published guidance for local authorities advising how applications for proposed onshore sites for the exploration of shale gas should be treated. The guidance was aimed at identifying local authorities that are repeatedly slow in determining such applications. Where local authorities typically take longer than 16 weeks to decide applications, the guidance states that the Secretary of State for Communities may determine shale applications directly, fast tracking applications where necessary to avoid delays in decisions.
Lord Smith’s Task Force on Shale Gas cautiously recommended in its third of four reports on the subject in September, that fracking should be pursued in the UK as an alternative to coal. The report highlighted the ways in which new technologies could be used in order to ensure environmental safety and revenue derived from the industry could be invested into pursuing low carbon energy generation.
This recommendation has been enthusiastically received by the Conservative Government. Amber Rudd, Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, in her speech to the Conservative Party conference last week confirmed the government’s support of the safe development of shale gas in the UK: “gas is going to be part of the transition to a low carbon economy. It is also good for jobs; it’s part of our plan to build the Northern Powerhouse and ensure the potential of all parts of the UK is realised; and it’s good for our energy security.”
This article was co-authored by Grace Smith, Trainee Solicitor, Edinburgh.