Blanket bans – otherwise known as moratoria – offer an effective, short-term way of avoiding hard decisions. It is convenient for politicians to say grandly: “Well, we can’t really discuss whether this is good or bad, right or wrong, because there is a moratorium in force.”
However, the word’s derivation gives a clue to its downside – it means delay, which can’t last forever. At some point, the ban has to be ended or made permanent, at which point it is no longer a moratorium. Cynics would say the average politician’s calculation is that he or she will have moved on by then, so it will be someone else’s baby.
The Scottish Government is now facing decision time on fracking – or, to give it its Sunday name, Unconventional Oil and Gas. Another kick into touch will be greeted with hoots of derision from all sides. But equally, a decision on whether to end the moratorium will inevitably attract outrage from one source or another.
My own view all along has been that the moratorium offered the worst of both worlds. We are getting no benefits from a valuable natural asset and no jobs in parts of Scotland which need them. On the other hand, continuing uncertainty fails to appease opponents while contributing to the impression that delay is all about politics, rather than genuine concerns.
The Scottish Government does not believe in hurrying, particularly when votes are due to be cast. Part of the problem has been that, over recent years, there has rarely been a moment when Scots are not about to go to the polls – Scottish elections, referendums, general elections. Delay has repeatedly been seen as the lesser of political evils.
This was at its most blatant in 2013 when the Scottish Government established a panel of experts to investigate arguments for and against developing unconventional oil and gas. Quite specifically, they were asked not to make recommendations, which makes you wonder what was the point.
Even without recommendations, there was little doubt about which way the report pointed. Scotland’s geology suggested “significant reserves” of unconventional oil and gas while “the regulatory impact is largely in place to control the potential environmental impacts”.
The report acknowledged concerns about “technical risks” and “social impacts on communities” but observed: “Many of these can be mitigated if they are carefully considered at the planning application stage. Added to which, there are already considerable legislative safeguards to ensure such impacts are not realised”.
Armed with this report, the Scottish Government should simply have concurred with its conclusions (even though it had not been allowed to make explicit recommendations) and opened its doors to applications, probably in what the report termed “the Midland Valley of Scotland”.
But with the independence referendum in the offing and critics baying for an outright ban, they did no such thing. Instead, we got the moratorium – a delay. It was not until this year, three years after receiving the expert report, that the next tentative step was taken with the launch of a public consultation.
It seems unlikely that it will throw up anything new. Delay has served its short-term purpose – though not, it seems, very satisfactorily from an SNP perspective. Now, unless another time barrier is broken, a decision on what to do about the moratorium must be made within the next three months.
One changing factor (as I noted in Energy last month) is that relying on imported gas is an ever more uncertain bet. There is plenty of it in the world but political instability, from Russia to Qatar, is the order of the day. The case for using what is under our feet seems overwhelming unless there is some convincing argument against it.
What is that answer? According to the World Wildlife Fund, the argument is that we should not be increasing reliance on fossil fuels, which I would find no difficulty in agreeing with. But then, as the GMB union points out, the question is not whether we rely on gas, but where that gas will come from.
Almost 80% of Scottish households rely on gas for heating and 30% of Scottish businesses are gas-dependent. However worthy the efforts to reduce these figures, it will be a long time before the crucial question becomes “whether” we need gas rather than “where” it comes from.
Then, of course, there is Grangemouth and Ineos, currently importing US fracked gas by the tanker-load. Again, there really has to be a compelling argument to overcome the obvious one – that Scottish fracked gas is in no way morally inferior to US fracked gas.
It is the fracking boom which has turned the US into an exporter and brought global prices tumbling, to the great detriment of the North Sea. Should we not reciprocate, even a little bit, by replacing US imports to Grangemouth with a supply that gives our own people jobs?
Each potential site will be different and the lugubrious Scottish planning system will undoubtedly continue to ensure that nothing happens very soon. But the first step should be to lift the moratorium – the delaying mechanism – and focus on specific cases, with specific features, with implications for specific communities.
That way, democratic decisions will eventually emerge.
Maintaining a moratorium is simply not credible and would be judged correctly, not as an act of high principle, but a timorous refusal to take a decision in principle which would allow rational discussion to proceed.
Brian Wilson is a former Labour MP who held five ministerial posts between 1997- and 2005. He was UK Energy Minister from 2001-03.