In October last year, the Scottish Government announced a ban on “onshore, unconventional gas extraction”, otherwise known as fracking. Fracking is the process of extracting gas from shale rock, by forcing water at high pressure into underground fissures. The ban followed four months of public consultation, with the government receiving over 60,000 responses – the second largest public consultation in Scottish history. 99% of responses received by the consultation were opposed to the practice of fracking, which has been linked to serious health and environmental problems.
A lot of the responses are available on the Scottish Government’s website, and they make for interesting reading. A question on the potential economic benefits of a fracking operation in their community was met with the following: “Being wealthier is irrelevant if your water is being contaminated and your community’s health is deteriorating.” Other responses simply read: “Environmental disaster.”
The strength of feeling in Scotland towards fracking is clear from the consultation. When the ban was announced, it was met by a collective “sigh of relief”, according to Broad Alliance, an umbrella group for communities opposed to unconventional gas extraction. Friends of the Earth Scotland hailed a “huge win for the anti-fracking movement.”
So, it seems the public were listened to. What a victory for democracy. Except a ban on fracking in Scotland is largely irrelevant when you consider the practices of Ineos at the Grangemouth refinery in Falkirk, and their partners in America.
Onshore gas is not extracted in Scotland, but every week the products of fracking are shipped 3,500 miles, in what has been called a “virtual pipeline”, from the East coast of America to Grangemouth. It is then subjected to a process known as “cracking”, which converts the gas into ethylene, a key component in the production of plastic. Cracking also releases a toxic mix of air pollutants, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrocarbons linked with various health issues, including cancer and respiratory disease.
The virtual pipeline connecting Scotland and America feeds into another, physical one: the 350-mile-long Mariner East. Ineos, the company in charge of the refinery at Grangemouth, and their American partners Sunoco Logistics, are in the process of building a second pipeline, which is expected to quadruple their capacity to transfer liquid gas.
You may have heard of the proposed Mariner East 2. The plans (and protests) briefly made international headlines, as the pipeline is set to cross the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, next to the lake that provides the tribe’s drinking water. And, yes, that’s the same Sunoco Logistics which Reuters judged to have the highest rate of oil spills of any oil and gas company in America. You don’t need to be an expert in the history of American oil spills to know that takes an impressive amount of recklessness.
In May last year, the campaign group Food and Water Watch (FAWW) published a report into the “Trans-Atlantic Plastic Pipeline”, which warned of significant environmental and health problems associated with the practice. In Pennsylvania, where over 10,000 new shale gas wells were built between 2005 and 2016, fracking has been linked with “earthquakes, health issues, traffic snarls and the destruction of the environment and farmland.” The report also explained that as the price of natural gas is falling, the US gas industry has to rely increasingly on exports to maintain profits. The ability to transport gas to Scotland is a key factor driving fracking in the US.
Once the gas is in Scotland, it still poses significant human health risks. Coinciding with the release of FAWW’s report last year, the Grangemouth site in Scotland was partially evacuated following a gas leak, with people warned to stay in their homes and local schools locked down. The Ineos refinery’s safety record was rated as poor last year by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, with the frequency of failures highlighted as a serious cause for concern. The ban on fracking in Scotland is a start, but what kind of message does it send if we still allow the products of fracking to be processed on our shores?
In January, Ineos announced the launch of 6 new oil and gas businesses, “created following the company’s extraordinary 2017 growth.” In North West Europe alone, it produces the equivalent of 95,000 barrels of oil every day. One of the largest companies in the world (the 6th largest oil and gas company), its sales in 2017 reached $60 billion.
Ineos has invested $2 billion in the virtual pipeline to Scotland. The refinery at Grangemouth is crucial to its operations. While the people of Scotland celebrate the protection of their environment and health provided by the ban, they should not be blind to the damage caused in other parts of the world, and the vital role Scotland plays in facilitating this harm. If we really want to ban fracking, we would tell Ineos that their fracked gas is no longer welcome in Falkirk.