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, 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!
RSPB Scotland Senior Conservation Policy Officer, Richard Evans' response to Daily Telegraph article.
Tilting at windmills
According to yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, "wind turbines have killed more birds of prey than persecution this year", in Scotland. Well, to quote the hapless William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s journalistic satire Scoop: “Up to a point, Lord Copper”.
The Telegraph piece is based on statistics released this week by SASA (the Scottish Government’s providers of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture).
The new figures cover the first two quarters of 2014, and include for the first time details of all animals submitted to SASA, as opposed to only incidents involving pesticides. On the face of it, this looks like an opportunity to make the sort of comparison reported by the Telegraph. But does it?
Well, probably not to the extent to which the article implies.
First of all, SASA clearly state that “... due to the nature of some incidents and the investigations relating to these it may be necessary to limit the information published. We will publish updates to such cases as further information becomes available ....” Some of the information that has been “limited” relates to the 22 birds of prey found dead in March and April 2014 on the Black Isle, fifteen of which Police Scotland in June “confirmed as having digested an illegally-held poisonous substance”. The police later confirmed that a further victim has tested positive for the same substance. The SASA spreadsheet covers these birds with a single row, listing the “species or sample involved” as “various”, alongside the comment “This incident is the subject of an on-going investigation”. So, the Telegraph’s analysis inadvertently omits sixteen bird deaths resulting from an illegal act or acts –meaning that in the first half of 2014, at least four times as many birds of prey were found to have died in Scotland as a consequence of wildlife crime than as a result of colliding with wind turbines.
Secondly, there is a more fundamental question of whether data such as SASA’s can be used to compare the rate of different causes of bird death at all. Most wildlife crime goes unreported, and if carcasses are recovered at all they are often in such a poor state that the cause of death cannot be determined. By contrast, accidental deaths are much more likely to reported – and quickly enough for a post-mortem to be carried out. This difference introduces a statistical quirk, technically known as selection bias, meaning that a simple comparison of the numbers of different known causes of death is likely to be flawed.
In common parlance, the Telegraph piece compares apples and carrots. Yes, the SASA data includes four bird of prey deaths at windfarms (apples). Yes, the SASA data includes two bird of prey deaths from persecution (carrots). Are there twice as many wind turbine deaths of Scottish raptors as deaths resulting from illegal killing? Err, no – because selection bias means that turbine deaths (apples) are far more visible than deaths resulting from persecution (carrots), and the SASA data reports only on birds found and submitted for analysis. And, err no again – because SASA clearly state that the data for the period are incomplete.
It is unfortunate that the ever-defensive Scottish Gamekeepers Association jumped on this decidedly shaky bandwagon, in a bid to try to exonerate an increasingly beleaguered gamebird shooting industry from any involvement in raptor persecution, despite contrary evidence being found on sporting estates year after year after year, and the monotonous regularity of gamekeepers appearing in our courts, including a case just last week.
But if you’re still not convinced that the Telegraph piece is way wide of the mark, why not try this little thought experiment? Suppose – just suppose – you wanted to rid a landscape of its birds of prey, how would you do it? Would you build a new-fangled and expensive wind farm, in the hope that all those eagle-eyed, highly manoeuvrable birds of prey would, like moths to a flame, fly into the turbines? Or would you rely on the tried and trusted Victorian methods of targeted trapping, shooting, poisoning and nest destruction that continue to be used by some to eradicate some of our rarest bird of prey species from vast swathes of our uplands?
This is not to say that there is no risk to birds of prey from windfarms. However, by and large the renewables industry is keen to minimise damage; and the consenting process for wind turbines is geared to avoid it. Wish that we could say the same about some elements of the shooting industry.
 , who operate the government’s wildlife incident investigation service (WIIS), the main aim of which is to “identify any adverse effects on non-target animals that might arise from the approved use of pesticides”. SASA also collect information for the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland) on poison abuse.