Legal challenge against ‘fracking’ ban fails after judge rules no prohibition in place
A petition seeking judicial review of the Scottish Government’s purported ban on “fracking” has been refused, after a judge ruled that there was in fact “no prohibition” against the controversial process of oil and gas extraction in Scotland – despite ministerial statements to the contrary.
The Court of Session held that the legal effect of certain statements and planning directions made by the Scottish Ministers to the effect that the Scottish Government will not support the development of unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland, and a subsequent decision that the directions should continue in force indefinitely, was that there was “no legally enforceable prohibition” against fracking in force.
Lord Pentland heard that on 28 January 2015 the Scottish energy minister, Mr Fergus Ewing MSP, made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the development of unconventional oil and gas extraction in Scotland (“UOG”) to the effect that there was to be work on planning and environmental regulation, a health impact assessment, and a consultation process on UOG. He stated that given the importance of this work it would be inappropriate to allow any planning consents in the meantime.
He therefore announced what he described as a “moratorium” on the granting of planning consents for all UOG developments, including the method of oil and gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. The moratorium was to continue until such time as the work referred to had been completed.
The minister stated that a direction would be sent to all Scottish planning authorities to give immediate effect to that policy. A similar direction would be issued to SEPA.
The 2015 Planning Direction and the 2015 SEPA Direction gave legal effect to the moratorium, by requiring planning authorities to intimate the receipt of planning applications for any UOG developments to the Scottish Ministers, prohibiting planning authorities from granting planning permission within 28 days of notification to ministers, and giving ministers the power to call in applications for determination by them.
The power of the Scottish Government to call in planning applications for determination by them, coupled with the 2015 Planning Direction and the 2015 SEPA Direction gave Scottish Ministers the means to control two of the essential legal requirements for onshore extraction of UOG. By refusing planning permission or authorisation of controlled activities, the Scottish Government could prevent onshore UOG development extending beyond drilling of core samples. To date, the notification requirements under the 2015 Planning Direction have not been triggered. No application has been remitted to ministers by SEPA under the 2015 SEPA Direction.
Following further research into the impact of onshore UOG development in Scotland and a public consultation, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, Mr Paul Wheelhouse MSP made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on 3 October 2017 in which he confirmed the Scottish Government’s “preferred position”, namely that it would not support the development of UOG in Scotland and that it would use planning powers to deliver its position; that it had written to local authorities across Scotland to make it clear that the directions that give effect to the moratorium would remain in place indefinitely; and that this action was sufficient to “effectively ban” UOG in Scotland.
On 5 October 2017 at First Minister’s question time, in reply to an observation that there was concern that the ban was not yet legally watertight, the First Minister said that: “What Paul Wheelhouse outlined to the chamber earlier this week is an effective way of banning fracking and … is the quickest way of banning fracking.”
At a debate on UOG in the Scottish Parliament on 24 October 2017, Mr Wheelhouse said that the Scottish Government was honouring the commitment it had previously given to allow MSPs an opportunity to “endorse our carefully considered and robust position on unconventional oil and gas”.
An amended motion was passed endorsing the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce an immediate and effective ban on UOG and noting that this position would be subject to a strategic environmental assessment before being finalised.
In December 2017 Ineos Upstream Limited and Reach Coal Seam Gas Limited, which both hold interests in petroleum exploration and development licences (“PEDLs”) in respect of certain onshore areas in Scotland raised the present proceedings, seeking judicial review of the acts and decisions of the Scottish Government in relation to UOG in Scotland.
The basis of the petitioners’ case was that in 2017 the Scottish Government “unlawfully imposed an indefinite ban on fracking”.
The Lord Advocate on behalf of the Scottish Ministers maintained that, on a correct understanding of its acts and decisions, the Scottish Government did not impose any such ban. He contended that since there was no ban the petitioners have no case; the petition for judicial review was based on a series of “fundamental misunderstandings” of the Scottish Government’s position and should accordingly be refused.
Refusing the petition, the judge held that, as a matter of law, there is no prohibition against fracking in Scotland.
The fact that the emerging policy position was expressed as being a “preferred” one showed that the Scottish Government understood that unless and until the strategic environmental assessment was completed, a policy on UOG could not lawfully be finalised and adopted.
Ministerial comments reflecting the opinion that there was an effective ban on fracking were (a) irrelevant to the legal question before the court; (b) not binding on the court; (c) in any event, not determinative of the question of construction that the court had to address; and (d) to the extent that they did not accurately express the legal effect of the decisions taken must be left out of account when answering the legal question.
‘No legal enforceable prohibition’
Lord Pentland’s written opinion stated: “The petition is predicated on the proposition that the Scottish Government has introduced an unlawful prohibition against fracking in Scotland. Whilst acknowledging that there have been a number of ministerial statements to the effect that there is an effective ban, the Lord Advocate, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, made it clear to the court that such statements were mistaken and did not accurately reflect the legal position. The stance of the Scottish Government before the court is that there is no legally enforceable prohibition.
“For the reasons set out in this judgment, I consider that the Government’s legal position is soundly based and that there is indeed no prohibition against fracking in force at the present time. What exists at present is an emerging and unfinalised planning policy expressing no support on the part of the Scottish Government for the development or extraction of UOG in Scotland.
“The process of policy development is not yet complete; the important stages of a strategic environmental assessment and a business and regulatory impact assessment have still to be carried out. There is no basis on which the court should interfere with those procedures; the petitioners will have a full opportunity to contribute to and participate in them. I conclude that since there is no prohibition against fracking, the petitioners’ case is unfounded; their application for judicial review of the alleged ban must accordingly fail.”
© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021