Can fractious SNP really be trusted to keep the lights on?
ROSEANNA Cunningham was at her most infuriatingly schoolmarmish last week when she was challenged on the future of fracking.
The occasion was the unveiling of a climate change ‘strategy’ which turned out to be little more than the opening of a new front in the war on drivers.
Ideas included crippling congestion charges and a levy to park at work — a silly proposal that has been bandied about since the earliest days of devolution.
Asked about the absence of fracking from the document, the Environment Secretary’s response was terse and dismissive.
‘Fracking isn’t mentioned because we are not doing it,’ she said. ‘In these circumstances, factoring something in that you are not actually doing at the moment is not something we had considered was of much use.’
Far better to resort to tried and tested policy proposals such as hounding motorists, rather than risk the wrath of the SNP’s grass-roots base who are bitterly opposed to a method of energy extraction that could spark an economic boom.
True, the determination to avoid challenging the intellectual paralysis at Holyrood is hardly confined to Miss Cunningham.
But nor does she appear the face of forward-thinking policy innovation, as she remains a figure firmly rooted in the Nationalist past.
Her nickname, after all, is Republican Rose, because of her anti-monarchist credentials.
Today (TUES) an energy strategy is set to be unveiled by the Scottish Government.
But it would be inadvisable to hold one’s breath for a Damascene conversion to fracking — the shorthand name given to the business of pumping water at high pressure into rock, forcing it to crack and release gas.
If the SNP’s apparent opposition to hydraulic fracturing — to give the technology its full name — was in any way principled or consistent, it would be easier to stomach.
But at the weekend the party was accused of misleading the public after buying thousands of ‘Frack Off’ badges — while insisting it had yet to make up its mind on fracking.
Publicly Nicola Sturgeon has always insisted she has an open mind on fracking and will allow it to go ahead only if there is no evidence that it damages the environment.
But her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, ordered thousands of anti-fracking badges for the SNP ahead of last year’s election.
Ahead of the poll, the party said it backed the current moratorium on fracking.
From her comments last week, it is surprising that Miss Cunningham wasn’t wearing one of Mr Murrell’s badges.
The party’s lack of appetite for it — despite a forthcoming Scottish Government consultation to explore its potential — is palpable.
Opposition parties, bar the Tories, are vehemently opposed to fracking and there is a growing clamour for a permanent ban.
And yet, it is only four years since Labour, SNP and Lib Dem politicians all went down on bended knee to keep the huge Ineos plant at Grangemouth, Stirlingshire open.
Ironically, it depends on shale gas as its raw material, shipped from the US.
The first Ineos tanker carrying American shale gas sailed under the Forth bridges in September last year, ready to start a ‘virtual pipeline’ from the US to Grangemouth where the gas can be converted into plastic for business use.
But there were no SNP politicians to welcome the shipment, apparently due to diary commitments.
Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and Cabinet colleague Keith Brown — the minister in charge of the economy — were spotted in the Holyrood canteen shortly after the shipment’s arrival.
An urgent prior engagement with their, er, lunch — but also a juvenile snub to Ineos.
Martyn Day, the SNP MP whose constituency includes Grangemouth, welcomed the arrival of fracked gas from the US but tellingly said he would not support fracking in Scotland even if it were proved to be safe.
‘Even if they come back with evidence to say this can be done, technically, safely and without a problem, the issue then becomes reputational damage,’ he claimed. So much for ambitious thinking…
Only limited plans for fracking have been given the go-ahead south of the Border, despite reserves of shale gas having been identified across large swathes of the country.
Britain imports half its gas and the decline in North Sea production means imports will hit 75 per cent of supply within 15 years without alternative sources.
Earlier this month, the UK Government’s climate change minister Nick Hurd said fracking could supply Britain with a cheap and abundant source of home-produced energy.
He told MPs: ‘I look at shale gas through the lens of energy security. We import a lot of gas.
‘If we have the capacity to generate our own gas in the country and we can do it cost effectively while reassuring people about the impact on the environment, I think it would be irresponsible to future generations not to answer the question, “Can we do it?”
‘Because we have seen the impact on the United States. We have seen what it is capable of doing. We owe it to ourselves to find out whether something similar can happen in the UK.’
Mr Hurd makes a convincing point: the US bounced back from the financial crash largely due to the cap on energy bills caused by shale gas.
Our reserves are smaller but a domestic supply of gas could drive down energy bills.
The other irony underlying the SNP’s approach is that fracking could keep an independent Scotland solvent.
As Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe told the Mail last year, ‘somebody is going to have to fund the trade deficit of Scotland — shale is maybe one way out of it because it will attract investment’.
Across Britain, it is estimated that 30,000 jobs could be created if a shale gas industry was encouraged.
In Scotland, we have a tradition of engineering excellence in Aberdeen and the North-East that could be harnessed to kick-start a fracking industry.
Miss Cunningham announced a plan last week to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 66 per cent by 2032.
Yet despite her sneering dismissal of fracking, she should remember that the US has saved millions of tonnes in carbon by shifting from burning coal to burning gas. Gas is a fossil fuel — but it is far cleaner than coal.
Apocalyptic predictions about the effect of fracking on the landscape, including forecasts of earthquakes, are now commonplace.
But none of the approximately 50,000 horizontal shale wells drilled in the US during the last decade have generated significant earthquakes.
In 2012, the British Geological Survey noted that the risks of shale development to groundwater and earthquakes had been exaggerated.
Of course, the SNP prefers renewable energy, despite mounting evidence of its unreliability.
ScottishPower turbines in South Ayrshire seem particularly prone to going on fire, or — as one did earlier this month — collapsing in high winds.
Wind farms produce only a fraction of the UK’s energy, with Scotland’s contribution sometimes as low as 0.17 per cent.
For years, the SNP attempted to prove that it was capable of managing the country’s affairs to bolster the case for separatism.
But it spent so much time trying to break up the UK that it failed in a host of areas, from education to the NHS.
As a consequence, the party seems to believe that now is not the time for ambitious policy-making or innovation.
The ship must be steadied in favour of doomed attempts to cling onto unilateral membership of the European single market: yet another constitutional smokescreen.
As long as the SNP keeps us in the dark over whether fracking has a future — and the omens are far from promising — it simply cannot be trusted to keep the lights on.