The recent coal bed methane gas development proposals in Scotland, with possibilities of related extensive fracking looming in the Central Belt, present many challenges for Scotland and raise questions about sustainability and energy policies, economic growth and public health.
Unconventional gas (UG) extraction may not appear out of place in a country where deep and open-cast coal mining is part of our industrial history but it will result in a heavily contested geographical and political terrain. Increasinglyt here are signs that some "economic growth" arguments could be privileged and over-ride well-documented public health and sustainability considerations. This could twist our energy policy away from safer and more sustainable energy expansion at a critical time.
Globally, it is suggested that UG can meet longer-term energy needs. There is little evidence to support this. United Nations Environment Programme and EU reports have documented either serious potential health risks attached to UG or gaps in its regulatory oversight. Locally, the number of permanent jobs that will be created by UG will be small yet could damage tourism. This begs the question: if UG doesn't meet energy needs, doesn't create many jobs, isn't sustainable and may seriously damage public health, why are such developments being considered? There is an answer to this question.
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Regulatory agencies charged with protecting health and the environment are now redrawing terms of reference and guiding principles to give equal weight to business interests and economic growth. While we should not nor could not be business hostile in Scotland, such government agencies should not be business friendly. They should be business neutral and prioritise human health and the environment, which will benefit from sustainable energy and green jobs. Across the UK, albeit to a lesser extent so far in Scotland, the "better regulation" ideology, a cosmetic phrase for much loosening of necessary regulatory control, geared to freeing market forces from imaginary reams of red tape, has been pervasive. It is not evidence-based and threatens public health. Yet it has led to swathes of regulatory agencies jumping or reluctantly being pushed on to the bandwagon. Protestations invariably follow that chopping resources and powers in regulatory agencies means no decline in the effectiveness of inspections or monitoring of our health, our environments and our workplaces. There are now fewer staff and resources and depleted data and surveillance of people and pollutants. Everyone is apparently working "smarter and not harder" while those in the field express concern about declining surveillance. Senior managers who deliver cuts in budgets, staff and red tape appear sanguine in contrast. Any UG development will of course add new pressures.
These policies may explain why an Australian company plans to exploit the Scottish UG reserves while reportedly leaving its home country because regulations are too tough. Scotland may be the easy option. Our planning laws and related regulations often neglect wider public health effects. They currently do not require full public health impact assessments or proper life cycle analyses of all UG materials from extraction and use through disposal and contamination. They do not require detailed health assessments of mixtures. They do not fully assess the potential psycho-social stresses produced by UG developments although the Scottish Government now allows planning authorities to consider impacts on communities and the environment.
Scottish NGOs and community groups have researched UG hazards, data gaps and potential risks in some depth – more so at this stage than regulatory agencies. They oppose the UG developments and apply precautionary principles. It will be interesting to see how the Scottish Government and agencies charged with safeguarding public health and the environment face up to the UG challenge and if they too adopt a public health precautionary approach.
Professor Andrew Watterson is director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at the University of Stirling.