Professor Watterson's open letter to Scottish Ministers on Scottish Planning Policies and the Unconventional Gas industry

Subject: Professor Watterson's open letter to Scottish Ministers on Scottish Planning Policies and the Unconventional Gas industry
From: Professor Andrew Watterson
Date: 20 May 2015

Dear Ministers,

I understand that the new Scottish Planning Policy is due to be announced on Monday 23rd June 2014. I am writing to you to express my support for the Concerned Communities of Falkirk (CCoF) position with regard to planning controls for unconventional gas developments. Their assessment of this industry and proposals for its de facto self-regulation, as well as their concerns about the potential public health impacts of such developments (including impacts on mental health and well-being as well as physical health), are based on some sound evidence. The economic, social and energy arguments for the industry do not convince yet the hazards and risks posed by the industry are potentially considerable and will not currently be regulated effectively.

Organisations such as the internationally respected American Public Health Association share many of the CCoF concerns. Globally, there have been no detailed and broad public health impact assessments or public health inquiries on unconventional gas. However, smaller independent health impact assessments of UG development proposals and extraction - in particular regions and districts for example by the University of Colorado and other researchers - have revealed a host of potentially very serious public health threats in addition to global warming. I am also unaware of any comprehensive public health impact assessments of industry proposals being carried out in Scotland and nor am I aware of any dedicated expert public health panels that have been convened to assess the activities of the industry beyond one limited English non-systematic literature review.

In England, government ministers have simply asserted two things. Firstly they state the shale gas industry will be strongly regulated as the UK regimes are the best in the world. Secondly they state the industry has a good track record on health, safety and environmental matters elsewhere in the world. This is not supported by the evidence. For example, the HSE recently produced a paper on offshore and onshore oil where it acknowledged that "as Unconventional Gas was not an issue when the UK implemented the Directive, we now need to bring this activity within the scope of our legislation" (HSE Board paper 2014 p6). They further noted that legislative changes were needed: "to ensure that the UK fully implements Directive 92/91, on mineral extraction through drilling". HSE did not even seem to be sure that unconventional gas was covered by the Borehole Regulations and Offshore Wells Design and Construction Regulations 1996. This is an amazing admission at this stage and indicates that UK statements about regulation being strong are simply wrong and indeed no regulations may currently apply in some sectors. Combined with reports over the last 6 months emerging of failures in industry practices relating to UK borehole maintenance and other health, safety and environment breaches globally by the unconventional gas industry, the English assessment looks deeply flawed.

It was therefore a surprise to hear that the Scottish Government may be considering approving unconventional gas industry projects and, if approved, allowing the industry to set its own buffer zones. Researchers and NGOs will look very closely at any assessment that allows the industry to extract gas in Scotland and will look even more closely at any evidence currently available, and I am aware of none, that supports self-regulated buffer zones for the industry.

Many Scottish Government policies on renewable energy resources and sustainability are admirable. The position too of the Scottish Strategic Environment Assessment Report in April 2013 is very sound when it states: "positive effects on population and health will arise from the continuing commitment to community engagement in the planning process. Positive effects on climate change are also predicted from the recognition of the need to reduce emissions and to adapt to changing weather patterns (p7)". The well-researched community concerns about unconventional gas in Scotland provide the Scottish government with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate meaningful community engagement, protect vulnerable communities and contribute to reducing climate change. Responding to community concerns will not damage the economy because of the existence of more sustainable renewable energy alternatives in Scotland. Scottish planning policy, when assessing unconventional gas proposals, could build in an effective precautionary approach to public health along the lines outlined in the European Environment Agency' two volume publication on 'Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the precautionary principle '. This would place Scotland at the forefront of international good practice.

It is appreciated that as several aspects of energy policy are still currently controlled by the UK government, some options for the Scottish Government will be limited. The UK government also still retains the lead role for the UK within the European Commission on policies, for example on endocrine disruptors that may be used in or produced by the extraction of shale gas through fracking and coal bed methane. United States government agencies have a list of over 800 potential endocrine disrupting chemicals present in their country. US researchers have recently identified over 100 of these disrupters present around UG extraction sites. Yet the UK government is still failing to support French and Swedish government calls for the European Commission to implement its 2012 policies on these substances by producing criteria to identify endocrine disruptors and to remove those where no safe exposure levels can be established. But Scotland is perfectly placed to adopt precautionary public health policies through its planning process. Acting for the common good in the UG energy sector will ensure its citizens are not exposed to chemicals that have not yet been assessed.

I would be grateful if you could draw these observations to the attention of any other Scottish committees and panels that may be examining the UG industry at the moment.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Andrew Watterson,
Director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research and Head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group