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Paul Younger: Why Strangle The Golden Shale Goose?

Professor Paul Younger, The Times

Four fifths of Scottish households are utterly reliant on gas heating, and the remaining fifth are in the most extreme fuel poverty in Europe. Why would any country strangle at birth an industry that could provide a domestic source of gas — as opposed to increasing reliance on the largesse of Vladimir Putin?

Let me first declare two things: Firstly, I voted “yes” in the referendum. Secondly, I have no links at all with any shale gas fracking companies: I own no shares in them, have never held any positions with them and have no research funding from them. My experience and reputation as an engineering academic were hard-won in the battle to save the former coalfield areas of the UK from massive water pollution following the widespread abandonment of mines. No one works in collieries, as I did, without learning about the safety issues surrounding methane.

Thus I had the right credentials for a panel of academics convened by the Scottish government in 2013 to take a long, dispassionate look at the many claims and counter-claims surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas fracking.

As a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, I had previously served on the panel the Academy had convened jointly with the Royal Society to provide a similar service to the UK government. Both appointments were unpaid. I knew nothing of shale gas before I sat on these panels, but I brought a vast international perspective on the environmental misdemeanours of the extractive industry.

What I learned on that committee convinced me that the fracking furore is a typhoon in a tea cup. The number of genuine environmental problems attributable to shale gas operations is tiny, and highly localised in any objectively demonstrable effects. The impacts are trivial compared to those I spent my career combating.

Yet the fuss which has greeted UK shale gas proposals has portrayed it as an apocalyptic development with unfathomable scope for damage. This is simply wrong.

Our panel concluded that the environmental and public health risks posed by unconventional gas developments here are well within the capacity of Scotland’s world-class regulatory system. The final report was published online last July, with warm endorsement from Fergus Ewing, the Scottish energy minister. Those of us who had freely given our time hoped the ensuing public debate might take advantage of the vast compendium of information we had written in as simple language as possible.

Yet the Scottish government has repeatedly refrained from reminding people that the report even exists, let alone publicly rehearsed its principal conclusions. The culmination of this embarrassing tendency occurred last Sunday when Stewart Maxwell claimed on the BBC that the report didn’t address public health issues (it did, at length). Corrected by the interviewer, he went on to claim that “many experts disagreed with its findings”. This is simply untrue.

One wonders why the Scottish government wasted the time of senior academics producing such a report of which even its own spokesmen are clearly ignorant. That such culpable ignorance extends to the population as a whole thus comes as little surprise.

In the days following the “yes” campaign, I and other scientists watched in dismay as our social networks degenerated into wilfully uninformed anti-fracking lobbies, fuelled by the feeling that fracking could be (mis)construed as a case of incipient “English” imposition on to Scotland, via the changes to the Infrastructure Bill.

In the midst of this carnival of misinformation, when I happened to publish an academic paper which demonstrated that the UK government’s hastily-introduced rules on fracking-induced seismicity are 40,000 times stricter than the rules for quarry blasting, I ended up with a death threat.

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