I Went to an Edinburgh Conference to Find Out How Scotland Is Going to Get Fracked

The fracking industry is pretty confident about winning reluctant Scots over and dealing with any "hardcore" protesters.

by Liam Turbett
11 February 2015, 11:00am

Yesterday, the UK's fracking industry piled into an Edinburgh conference room and asked themselves whether Scotland is "ready for fracking" yet. Given that the Scottish Government's moratorium on the contentious gas and oil extraction method is barely two weeks old, the question seemed like a non-starter. But neither the fracking companies, their academic cheerleaders nor the PR and legal firms hovering around them seemed particularly worried by the fracking freeze, in place until "further research" is carried out. In fact, with the House of Commons recently giving the green light to developments in England, the current situation in Scotland is viewed more as a temporary blip for the fledgling industry, which claims it will revolutionise the UK's energy supply within a few decades. In Wales, the Government just voted against fracking, although developers are cracking on with it regardless.

Fracking remains deeply controversial, with concerns about water contamination, seismic activity, health problems and the climate change implications of unleashing new fossil fuel reserves. At this event though, just about everyone was super-enthusiastic about its prospects. This maybe isn't surprising given that tickets were £140 apiece and the venue was full of eager young consultants from the event sponsor, scoping out how likely attendees are to invest in the sector. In any case, the ticket price seemed to have priced out the "professional protesters" that one speaker warned have been causing havoc at fracking sites around the country.

For those keen on shale gas, it represents a virtual catch-all solution to the UK's immediate energy needs, providing jobs and economic benefits at home, less reliance on precarious or undesirable foreign suppliers (that means Russia), and a "bridging fuel" in the transition to renewables. There's also a lot of it, with Scotland estimated to have 80 trillion cubic feet of gas and 6 billion barrels of oil in a "midland valley" covering a swathe of the Central Belt, potentially turning Scotland into some sort of chilly Brunei.

The scientists at yesterday's event were adamant that fracking can be regulated and carried out safely, with this being the right time to start playing catch-up with the United States and its booming industry. Although never descending into any Rich Texan Guy in the The Simpsons style outbursts, their frustration with people's distrust of fracking did sometimes come through. Finding a way to bring a sceptical public on board with the industry would turn out to the major talking point of the day.

"We need a genuine debate about reality rather than phantasms about what might happen," said Gordon Hughes, an Edinburgh University economist who gave a talk on whether "emotion should trump reality" and hit out at "politically driven" decision making. "We need to focus on the choices we have to make. If Scotland decides it wants to be cold and green, then fine... but let's not wander into that through ill-thought out political posturing."

But if the opponents of fracking are sometimes guilty of spouting specious nonsense, the fracking industry seems mostly concerned with winning popular consent by simply shrouding what they do in a lot of vacuous jargon and vague, semantic bullshit. As one researcher into perceptions of fracking put it: "Language is very important... what does an 'earthquake' really mean?"

Gary Haywood, the CEO of INEOS Upstream, the shale exploration wing of the multinational chemicals giant INEOS, was also unhappy with public perceptions of unconventional oil and gas. "When people don't understand the facts, or get told half truths, you can blame them for being outraged. You may believe it's technically not justified but that's not the point. The social license to operate comes from the community."

The new, caring face of INEOS, operating under the terms of a "social license", might come as a surprise to those familiar with the business, not least its own workers. In late 2013, the company became embroiled in a major union dispute at its Grangemouth refinery in central Scotland. This culminated in the company threatening to shut the entire plant down, which would have had untold implications for the Scottish economy. Although they eventually kept it open, it's a funny kind of "social license" that can see a multinational hold an entire country "to ransom" – in the view of one newspaper – and force its employees to sign away their terms and conditions just to keep their jobs. With INEOS intending to become the biggest player in the UK fracking industry, we might be seeing a lot more of them. Although if Scotland doesn't go ahead with fracking, Haywood added that Grangemouth would be "unlikely" to have a long-term future – a shot across the bows to the current moratorium.

INEOS weren't the only powerful interests represented in the room. Sitting along the row from me was the Energy Director of Buccleuch Estates, a company run by the largest private landowner in the UK and all-round feudal throwback, the Duke of Buccleuch. It's only been a few days since the Duke warned that long-awaited proposals for land reform are causing him so much anxiety that he's considering downsizing his estate. In the meantime though, he seems content to start fracking as much of it as he can get away with.

Throughout the conference, speakers were keen to differentiate between a naïve "silent majority" of the population, who probably just need to be "informed" correctly before they decide that yes, they do want fracking in their town, and a "hardcore of certain individuals" who necessitate a tougher approach. So for all the conciliatory language, the day finished off with a talk on how to deal with protests, delivered by Melissa Thompson, a legal director at law firm Pinsent Masons. Thompson coldly listed off protest actions that have hit fracking sites to date, including blockades and land occupations, and ominously warned those present that "more are planned". She didn't quite say that any prospective frackers should definitely hire her services, but I think that was probably implied.

"Community engagement will assist by increasing understanding of the fracking process and giving people a real understanding of the true position on risk," she said, although added this doesn't apply in the case of the "professional protesters who don't actually don't know what cause they're protesting against".

Thompson's brief rundown of the best legal recourse for tackling protesters was compared to preparations "for the D-Day landings" by the conference chair.

Closing the conference, the chair asked the expert panel to estimate when they think commercial fracking will commence in Scotland.

"I think [SNP Energy Minister] Fergus Ewing is a sensible gentleman and will see that it's a logical thing for us to do in Scotland. As we've heard from INEOS and everyone else, it will take time, but I would be very surprised if in ten years time we don't have meaningful levels of shale gas production in Scotland", offered industry advisor Stuart Paton.

Clouded in the language of "understanding concerns", "social licenses" and even "positively embracing" the Scottish Government's moratorium, the fracking industry is gearing up for a drawn-out and calculated fight that it's prepared to wage on several fronts. With government scientific advisors on their side, they seem confident that with the right efforts, the public will catch up to their way of thinking too.


More fracking:

The Bros of Fracking

Who's Going to Get Rich Off Fracking the UK?

VICE News: What the Frack?