MacDonald Welcomes Environmental Assurances on Local Air Quality from Ministers and Backs Parliament Calls for Greater Clarity on Proposed Developments for Unconventional Gas
Sunday, 16 March 2014 17:31
Air Quality in Grangemouth and Unconventional Gas in Airth High on Agenda
Falkirk East MSP Angus MacDonald has quizzed Scottish Government Ministers in Parliament on air quality in Grangemouth and unconventional gas extraction around Airth, and has claimed Scotland’s draft national planning framework and policy lacks clarity on planning rules for unconventional gas and onshore windfarms.
He said that fuller guidance to planning authorities on proposed developments for unconventional gas or ‘fracking’ should also be included in the final planning policy, which is still being scrutinized by the Scottish Parliament.
In addition he has raised concerns about the lack of information on how large areas of land identified as core wild land will affect wind farm development in Scotland. Currently, there is too much uncertainty on whether the designation of an area as wild land will prohibit economic development projects.
Speaking during a recent meeting of his Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee in the Scottish Parliament, Angus MacDonald used the opportunity of the appearance of both the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse and the Planning Minister Derek Mackay to give evidence on NPF3 to seek assurances from them on both unconventional gas extraction around Airth and air quality in Grangemouth should the proposed Summit Power Carbon Capture and Storage plant ever go ahead.
Quizzing the Ministers, Angus MacDonald asked for reassurance for his constituents that environmental safeguards on air quality will be given due consideration if or when the application for a CCS plant is submitted for Grangemouth saying:
“SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) noted that NPF3 will support the delivery of RPP2 emission reduction actions in the energy sector, including carbon capture and storage. If the committee will excuse me for being parochial, I will ask specifically about carbon capture and storage. As the ministers know, one of the proposed CCS plants is in my constituency of Falkirk East, as part of the Grangemouth investment plan in the national development list. Some local concerns have been raised regarding the impact on air quality if 90 per cent carbon capture is not operational at the plant from day 1. Clearly, any planning application such as that for the plant has to take into account environmental considerations. Notwithstanding that, can the ministers reassure me and my constituents that environmental safeguards on air quality will be given due consideration if or when the applications are submitted for Grangemouth (and Peterhead)?”
Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse responded: “The strategic environmental assessment for a project such as that will acknowledge the potential impact on air quality. There is quite strict regulation through the European Commission industrial emissions directive, which SEPA would have responsibility for enforcing. If such a site were to be developed, it would be a national development and there would be on-going and rigorous policing of the site’s emissions to ensure that they complied with the requirements of the EC industrial emissions directive.
A project-level environmental impact assessment would also provide more detail and take into account the range of factors that might be found on such a site, including fuel transport, fuel technology that might be used and mitigation measures that might be identified and developed to reduce impacts to an acceptable level.
We have explicitly acknowledged the need for co-ordinated action in Grangemouth to address the potential impacts of the development on the local community’s quality of life. Planning has a key role to play in ensuring the quality of the place and environment that people live in. We will take that forward following finalisation of NPF3, as part of the action programme.
I am happy to have a more detailed discussion with Angus MacDonald about his and his constituents’ concerns. I put on record that we foresee SEPA, working with the site operators, taking a rigorous approach to ensuring that the EC industrial emissions directive is applied. SEPA’s general approach is to work with businesses to ensure that they comply, rather than to have to deal with the aftermath of non-compliance. We hope that the project-level EIA will give us sufficient detail to understand whether particular problems might arise and enable us to tackle them before the development takes place”.
Planning Minister Derek Mackay continued: “The salient point to make is that what we are doing is not retrospective; it is not just about monitoring, enforcement and regulation. It is about ensuring that we get the development right at the outset, before any development goes ahead. That is why there are such stringent regulations and expectations around the assessment that would be made, both for it to feature as a national development and then for it to be developed in due course, if the funding package and the development proposal come together.
We are mindful of the engagement that we have had in that area. We had not only the general NPF3 consultation exercise across the country but very specific engagement with the community to ensure that we understood the issues that had been raised and how we might address them.
In addressing Angus MacDonald’s comments, I concur absolutely with Mr Wheelhouse: mitigation of environmental impacts and local community interests will be crucial as part of the overall approach to sustainable economic development”.
Continuing on the same theme of environmental concerns Falkirk East MSP Angus MacDonald raised the issue of unconventional gas extraction, for which there is currently a live application from Dart Energy covering the Airth area of Falkirk district, and is due to be considered by Reporters at a Public Local Inquiry starting this week.
Highlighting local concerns, Angus MacDonald then asked the Ministers: “Thank you. I welcome the ministers’ assurances (on air quality/CCS), as will my constituents.
If I can continue to be parochial, convener, my constituency has an issue with unconventional gas extraction, which does not get as warm a welcome in NPF3 as it did in NPF2. Although it is not a national development, it will have a major impact in the proposed areas should it go ahead and concerns are growing, not least in my Falkirk East constituency, about the gung-ho attitude of the United Kingdom Government, which is issuing petroleum exploration development licences—PEDLs—left, right and centre. More PEDLs will be released in the near future.
“I welcome the minister’s announcement last October on the introduction of buffer zones between unconventional gas developments and communities. However, the issue is clearly a complex one and SEPA has recently confirmed that it might not have the capacity to monitor properly methane leakage from wells. There are clearly a number of environmental concerns locally and nationally.
In addition, Scottish Environment LINK’s submission calls on the Government to invoke the precautionary principle in relation to coal-bed methane and not to allow any developments “until climate and other environmental and health concerns are fully addressed”.
“I am hoping to take this opportunity to ask the ministers to give the committee and the public some comfort that, should unconventional gas extraction go ahead, SEPA will have the appropriate powers and capacity to regulate it. Can the ministers also confirm that local planning authorities will have the power to set the distance of each buffer zone, as the minister announced in October? “
The Ministers responded as follows:
Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “I will take the first part of the question and then direct the part about buffer zones to Mr Mackay. On the role of SEPA, I have to be careful what I say because a determination on a specific site is being made by inquiry so I will not go into the detail of the evidence that has been given to that inquiry. Suffice it to say that we in Scotland see ourselves as having an approach to unconventional gas that is distinct from that of the UK. The UK is entitled to take the position that it has taken, but we in Scotland have taken the view that we need to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place, should any opportunity arise, so that unconventional gas is robustly regulated. We want to give confidence to communities and the public in Scotland that such opportunities will be taken only when to do so would be consistent with the regulatory constraints.
“I have not yet had direct representations from SEPA about the resource issues and concerns to which Angus MacDonald referred. I would certainly be happy to engage with SEPA on any resource implications that it has not yet communicated to me. I undertake to take that forward with Mr Sigsworth and James Curran. I reassure Angus MacDonald that we appreciate that there are concerns in Falkirk East and other parts of the country about unconventional gas. There are currently no permits in Scotland for hydraulic fracturing. We have worked with Dart Energy to remove the only existing consent at Canonbie, but a number of sites are being tested for coal-bed methane.
Much of the public discourse has failed to make the distinction between coal-bed methane and hydraulic fracturing, and has lumped them together as fracking. They are two different technologies and, at the moment, the only ones with live opportunities or projects are for coal-bed methane rather than hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. We do not, at the moment, have any concerns about that.
There is a split between the UK Government and the Scottish Government in terms of the licensing process. That does not necessarily sit comfortably with us because we have to deal with our concerns through the planning and regulatory systems rather than having control over the licensing itself.”
Angus MacDonald then persisted in seeking clarification from Planning Minister Derek Mackay on buffer zones saying: “Can Mr Mackay confirm that local planning authorities will have the power to set the distance of each buffer zone?”
Minister Derek Mackay responded: “They will: each planning authority will be able to interpret and use the current guidance as it sees fit in making local determinations.
I will not beat about the bush or be too delicate here—and I ask the unionist party committee members to forgive me for a moment—but it would be better if we had independence and all the powers in one place so that we could make robust and consistent decisions on all policy matters, not least in this area. After all, a range of agencies will be involved in, for example, fracking. The Department of Energy and Climate Change will play a role, the Coal Authority might be involved and, of course, there will be SEPA and the planning authorities. However, the Government’s guiding principle is to promote responsible extraction of resources and to assist with that work. That is why we have established an expert panel to inform our policy proposition and individual local planning authorities. My answer to your original question is that the planning authority will determine in the light of local circumstances the appropriate buffer zone and separation distance, because that will very much be a local consideration. We have not set a national separation distance, because we feel that the distance is a matter for local authorities.
“Mr Wheelhouse is right: our understanding is that there are at this point in time no fracking applications in Scotland. However, if one were to appear, we would want to ensure that the guidance on notification and the best expertise were available to support the local authority in making a determination. We look forward to the work of the expert scientific panel, but I think that the Government has made clear its direction of travel on this issue. We expect robust understanding of impacts on the environment before consent can be given.”
Speaking after the meeting, Angus MacDonald MSP said:
“I was pleased to have the opportunity to raise these environmental concerns with both the Environment Minister and the Planning Minister during the evidence session at committee. There are clearly still concerns locally however the reassurances I’ve received on regulatory issues will provide a lot of comfort to the majority of my constituents.”
“The scrutiny of NPF3 has been a valuable opportunity to feed into planning policy at Government level and seek further guidance for planning authorities when considering proposals for onshore oil and gas facilities, as well as CCS.”
“With regard to the development of unconventional gas and the technique of ‘fracking’ I join calls from the Scottish Parliament’s Energy Committee that, in the interests of transparency, the final Scottish Planning Policy should include an explanation of the different roles and responsibilities of the various agencies involved in the licensing and monitoring of unconventional gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing and that the planning policy outlines the consultation requirement for each process.
“In addition I welcome the Minister’s commitment to consider whether the application processes for unconventional gas extraction and the use of hydraulic fracturing fully involve the communities where the extraction could take place and recommend that both processes should be subject to the same level of community consultation.
“Furthermore, as the possible sites for unconventional gas extraction are often located in urban areas, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to establishing a ‘buffer zone’ between these developments and local communities.
“In addition, given the controversy and lack of understanding of the nature of unconventional gas extraction processes, I welcome the recommendation that the Scottish Government consider how SEPA and local planning authorities can work together to ensure that communities are adequately consulted on any applications for unconventional gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing and that the final SPP includes guidance on agreeing sufficient restoration processes.
“It is clear that a sustainable environment should be at the heart of an effective planning system. The national planning framework is a positive and ambitious document that will sit at the top of the planning hierarchy and will contribute to helping Scotland’s communities adapt to climate change.
“However, we need a clearer focus on some key areas to ensure that the planning system reflects our environmental ambitions. If we are to meet challenging targets, we must take bold action.
“The third National Planning Framework (NPF) is an ambitious document that will play a fundamental role in delivering reductions to Scotland’s greenhouse gas targets but needs to be improved in a number of key environmental areas.”