Scotland rejects fracking, citing overwhelming public opposition

FILE PICTURE: A man plays flaming bag pipes as opponents of fracking protest outside the offices of Ineos after they received the first shipment of shale gas to be delivered to the Britain at their Grangemouth terminal in Scotland, Britain September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

By Elisabeth O'Leary EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland will block fracking indefinitely after a public consultation found overwhelming opposition to the practice, the British region's energy minister said on Tuesday in a victory for environmentalists. Scotland imposed a moratorium on fracking, the process of fracturing underground shale rock to release gas and oil, in 2015 and that will now remain for the foreseeable future. "The decision taken today means fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland," Paul Wheelhouse told the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. "Taking account of available evidence and the strength of public opinion, my judgment is that Scotland should say 'no' to fracking." The method has run into stiff opposition in many countries. Environmentalists say it causes problems including pollution of the water table, and residents of areas where fracking is being considered fear increased noise, traffic and other impacts. Britain is estimated to have substantial amounts of shale gas trapped in underground rocks but despite support from the central government in London, progress has been slow as environmentalists and local communities lobby against fracking. The London government approved a shale gas fracking permit for a site in Lancashire, northern England, a year ago, using new powers that allowed it to overturn a local authority decision against the permit the previous year. In Scotland, advocates of fracking say it could offset the decline in North Sea oil reserves and boost the Scottish economy. But Wheelhouse told parliament the government's consultation had attracted more than 60,000 responses, of which about 99 percent were to oppose fracking. Environmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth both welcomed the news from Edinburgh and said the executive there, run by the Scottish National Party (SNP), was leading the way towards clean energy. "This is a huge win for the anti-fracking movement, particularly for those on the front line of this dirty industry here in Scotland, who have been working for a ban these last six years," said Mary Church, head of campaigns for Scotland at Friends of the Earth. But chemical company Ineos, which has a large Scottish operation at Grangemouth on the River Forth, sees shale gas as a potential solution to the decline of North Sea resources needed to provide the base ingredients to make its products. "It is a sad day for those of us who believe in evidence-led decision-making," said Tom Pickering, operations director of Ineos Shale. "The Scottish government has turned its back on a potential manufacturing and jobs renaissance and lessened Scottish academia’s place in the world by ignoring its findings," he said, referring to expert reports that found fracking was safe. Britain's central government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, supports fracking. The opposition Labour Party has said it would ban the technique if elected. "The Conservative government in Westminster is now alone in backing fracking and looks very isolated indeed," said Elisabeth Whitebread, energy campaigner at Greenpeace UK. Ineos took a different view. "Expert reports have clearly stated that this technology can be applied safely and responsibly – but it will be England that reaps the benefits," said Pickering. (Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary, writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Mark Heinrich)