An environmental watchdog has been accused of "colluding with fracking cheerleaders" to help win public approval in Scotland for the controversial gas extraction technique.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is participating in regular Whitehall meetings to co-ordinate communication strategies around unconventional oil and gas. They are organised by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, set up by UK ministers and handed a remit to promote recovery of onshore energy reserves.
Documents made public under Freedom of Information laws show that the Scottish regulator pressed the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to come up with a response to questions over why fracking had been banned in other jurisdictions but not the UK.
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The summits were established in October last year and have been held every six weeks, following work undertaken by the DECC and Sciencewise, a programme funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In documents shared with SEPA, it was suggested that "more tangible" terminology should be used in "lines" around fracking regulation to counter negative views. It was also told that the public is more likely to trust scientists and regulators than industry or Government.
At one meeting, all participants were asked to come up with "examples of how the regulatory system in the UK protects against the risks seen in the US".
SEPA, which would be required to issue permits for fracking developments before they got the green light, insisted it was "completely neutral" when it came to unconventional oil and gas.
However, Labour MSP Neil Findlay said the revelations raised "very serious questions". While the Scottish Government remains on the fence over fracking having announced a moratorium, the UK Government is an enthusiastic supporter and is keen to fast-track the industry.
Mr Findlay said: "I understand that SEPA would want to be prepared whatever the decision made on fracking but these documents show how they are working hand in glove with the UK Government and are currently going way beyond simply understanding the issue of fracking and its consequences.
"Developing public engagement and communication strategies with fracking cheerleaders the Department for Energy and Climate Change, alongside other regulators from across the UK, reveals a deep collusion between SEPA, and the UK Government, who we know are fully supportive of fracking no matter the social or environmental costs."
In one of the communications meetings, it was decided "lessons learned" from engagement strategies in Lancashire, where fracking developments were rejected following fierce opposition, would shared with other regulators.
SEPA has also held regular meetings with other UK regulators to discuss unconventional oil and gas developments since 2013. At one early meeting, Emma Taylor, a senior policy officer at SEPA, emailed an update on a series of potential developments in Scotland but asked that minutes were not taken. She received a reply: "Yes, we’ve all agreed to stop doing minutes." Detailed records are also not taken of the communications meetings, with a email stating: "like last time we will not do a full note of the meeting".
Mr Findlay added: "What is most alarming and telling is that this group of regulators have decided that what they are doing is so sensitive that they should no longer record in writing what they are discussing.
"This deliberate decision not to minute meetings is designed ensure there is no transparency around the content of these meetings. They simply don’t want people to find out what is going on. SEPA should make clear exactly what is going on in these meetings and what exactly it is they hope to achieve from them."
Emails reveal that the Scottish Government was aware of SEPA's presence at the communications meetings, with Ms Taylor updating officials in January. Ms Taylor also attended Westminster in January last year for an 'informal catch up' at the DECC where fracking was discussed.
SEPA will play a key role in a Public Health Impact Assessment commissioned by the Scottish Government. The work will help determine whether the moratorium on fracking, a process that sees wells drilled deep into the earth before water, sand and chemicals are pumped in to release gas trapped in shale rock, is lifted.
The UK Government has responsibility for licensing onshore oil and gas developments, however, the process is on hold with control set to be devolved to Holyrood.
A spokesman for SEPA said it was important to "proactively engage" with the UK Government about "regulatory differences" with the rest of the UK.
He added: "SEPA remains completely neutral with regards to unconventional gas and has categorically never promoted unconventional gas or fracking. Any presentations from staff have always focused on explaining our current regulatory role and the controls in place to ensure that the environment is adequately safeguarded.”
"While the moratorium remains in place, SEPA continues to work directly with the Scottish Government on our regulatory framework in relation to unconventional gas."