The Scottish government has extended its ban on fracking after ministers confirmed it would not grant permission for any onshore drilling projects.
Paul Wheelhouse, the environment minister, said his devolved government would also refuse to issue licences for onshore unconventional oil and gas projects, including fracking, shale gas or coalbed methane projects.
But Wheelhouse rejected calls from climate campaigners and Scottish Labour for fracking to be specifically outlawed by legislation in Scotland. He said the government’s regulatory powers under its planning and licensing systems were strong enough.
Promising the government could consider legislation if it was needed in future, Wheelhouse said fracking was incompatible with the Scottish parliament’s new target of cutting climate emissions to net zero by 2045, which was passed by MSPs last week.
“There has been a dramatic change in public perceptions of the environment, the climate crisis and the expectations of government to respond,” he said. As a result “an unconventional oil and gas industry would not be of sufficient positive benefit to Scotland to outweigh its negative impacts”.
Claudia Beamish, Scottish Labour’s environment spokeswoman, said that without legislation this ban could be overturned by another government in future.
The ban formalises a moratorium first announced by the Scottish government in January 2015 after it came under intense pressure, fuelled by pro-independence activists and campaigns in Scottish National party target seats affected by fracking licences in central Scotland.
It is understood there were strong reservations about a permanent ban from Fergus Ewing, the then energy minister, but in 2017 ministers confirmed the moratorium would continue.
It led to a court challenge by the oil and chemicals giant Ineos, which runs the Grangemouth chemicals and oil refinery complex west of Edinburgh.
The Scottish government won but its lawyers admitted in court that the moratorium did not amount to a formal ban. It was instead a policy of “no support”, a distinction which Wheelhouse repeated on Thursday.
Mark Ruskell, the Scottish Greens climate spokesman, said ministers should now follow through by finally rejecting an application by Ineos dating from 2012 to produce coalbed methane near Airth.
Wheelhouse said that application would now be decided and said the government’s chief planner had written on Thursday to Scotland’s 32 councils to tell them planning permission for any unconventional oil and gas project should now be refused.
That planning direction would be underwritten in the next national planning framework, giving it statutory force. That is due to be passed by the Scottish parliament before the next Holyrood elections in May 2021, he added, but that could not be guaranteed.
Mary Church from Friends of the Earth Scotland said: “It is frustrating that today’s decision falls short of the full legal ban that would put the issue to bed once and for all.”
She said ministers should also take a far tougher line on North Sea oil and gas production: “[The] Scottish government has announced a climate emergency, and a growing movement is demanding it starts acting like it means it. That includes taking a much tougher stance with big, polluting corporations, ending its support for new oil and gas and using the powers it has to pass strong laws in the Scottish parliament to drive the transformative change we need.”
Alexander Burnett, for the Scottish Conservatives, accused Wheelhouse of hypocrisy, since ministers seemed to be happy for Ineos to import tens of thousands of tons of gas by tanker from fracking in the US for its plastics plants at Grangemouth.