August 13, 2014
Taking the constitutional initiative
One of the arguments in the independence debate has been whether or not Scotland needs a constitution – a document enshrining the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of government. Whether Scotland gets its constitution remains to be seen, but communities in the Falkirk area aren’t waiting around. Concerned about the risks associated with fracking for gas, a community charter has been drafted – a rights based document – that defines what they consider to be their cultural heritage and why it must be protected. The Charter has attracted widespread political support and could be a template for others.
History was made in Falkirk on 19th August with the signing of the new Community Charter, created by local residents to protect their environment. All 13 SNP councillors have adopted the Charter, along with two nonaligned independent councillors and 1 Labour Councillor. They join Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council, the group CCoF (Concerned Communities of Falkirk) and a growing number of local residents and farmers who all support the UK’s first ever Community Charter. Residents had already handed over the Charter to MSP Angus MacDonald for delivery to Scottish ministers.
Resident Alison Doyle said: “We are delighted that councillors have recognised the Charter as direct expression of the values and aspirations of their electorate, and fully welcome their adoption and support”.
SNP Councillor Steven Carleschi said, “I was pleased all members agreed to sign this excellent Community Charter. I think it’s important that we support the local community who are against these proposals, shown by over 2000 objections to date. Despite many outstanding issues regarding this drilling method, Westminster Government has issued licenses across the UK. This will not lead to lower gas prices for local people, so there is no community benefit to this development.”
The Charter was produced in response to Australian firm Dart Energy’s application to extract coalbed methane commercially in the Forth Valley between Falkirk and Stirling, an area of old coal mines. The local community seeks protection from what many people consider a destructive, risky development close to homes, with boreholes even running under some houses. Farmland, green-belt and wildlife conservation areas would all be threatened. The Charter sets out a clear vision of what the community values and wants to safeguard. Over 2500 formal objections were lodged in relation to Dart’s application.
In response to Dart Energy’s clear discomfort with residents’ objections, Vivien Murchison, who lives locally, said: “Myself and the many other residents who contributed to the Charter, discovered that Unconventional Gas drilling has been going on largely unmonitored on our door-steps for 20 years, and is about to scale-up considerably, while evidence from other countries shows it may cause significant health problems. What’s unusual about a community coming together to safeguard their families, and what they value, from suspected risk?”
Local resident Dr Mark Williams added: “Dart’s latest documents and rebuttals have done little to allay our concerns. If anything, they have introduced new ones. With relevant research emerging all the time, and as we build our scientific knowledge, our case grows stronger every day.”
Both Dart’s application and the community response could set a precedent. Vast swathes of British countryside – including much of Scotland’s Central Belt – are being considered for various forms of Unconventional Gas development, including Coal Bed methane extraction, Shale Gas extraction, and Underground Coal Gasification. There has been widespread opposition to such developments, including in Balcombe, Sussex, where protests have been receiving national coverage.
Created through public meetings, with support from lawyers and consultants, the Falkirk Charter maps tangible and intangible ‘assets’, including public and environmental health, which local people consider essential to their present and future well-being. It also sets out community rights and responsibilities to protect these ‘assets’, such as meaningful participation by residents in planning processes.
Convenor of Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council, Eric Appelbe, said: “The Charter lends further weight to the Community Council’s representations given the background of concern from the community, as well as the identified potential impact on environmental and public health assets. We are pleased to have had some input and wish to be associated with its terms.”
The Charter is not a legal document, but the intention is to give it legal effect through the planning process. Drawing inspiration from Community Bills of Rights in the USA – often a community response to unwelcome UG developments – the Charter also refers to the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, which recognises the importance of ‘cultural heritage’ in a broad sense. This ground-breaking document is a direct expression of community opposition to risky developments. Seven Community Councils officially oppose Dart’s application.
Dart Energy lodged an appeal with the Scottish Government while Falkirk and Stirling Councils were still considering the application. Falkirk Council’s Planning Committee called for a Public Inquiry. Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council and local residents joined that call in a letter submitted with the Charter, which itself declares the community’s rights to have its voice heard. An official Inquiry is now going to be held.
Major concern escalated in the Falkirk area from late 2012, when hundreds of people – including many owners of new homes – received notification of their proximity (20 metres) to Dart’s proposed site. Some families had just moved in, only to learn they would be living near to gas-wells, and that Dart proposed drilling boreholes close to, or actually under, their homes. While the UK government granted a license for exploratory drilling locally some years ago, Dart Energy’s plans for a commercial gas-field worries residents and farmers, faced with the prospect of potentially hundreds of wells and associated infrastructure across the region.
Dr Carol Anderson, who lives near to several wells, says: ‘We are worried about monitoring – about how often, and what chemicals will be monitored? Air quality is a particular concern. Dart’s Environmental Statement does not fully address the impact of fugitive emissions (leaks), despite the fact that in other countries wells have shown to leak significant amounts of methane into the air.’ SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) is under pressure over its proposed regulation, while international toxics expert and adviser to Australian Government, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, has called the unconventional gas industry ‘unregulatable’. Australian state of New South Wales has banned all CBM activity (CSG) within 2 km of residential areas and rural businesses in response to scientific evidence and community pressure. As many people in Forth Valley live within 2km of Dart’s site, they are asking why they are not being afforded similar protection.
The Community Charter follows on from the Falkirk Community Mandate, a detailed objection letter co-developed by local residents, calling for an overhaul in policy given the risks found to be posed by UG elsewhere. Over 2000 Mandates were signed within a few weeks and delivered to Falkirk Council, with numbers still rising.
Against this background of public opposition, Falkirk Council commissioned a report from AMEC Consultancy on various aspects of Dart Energy’s potential activities, requesting further time to consider Dart’s application. AMEC’s report concluded there was a need for further information from Dart. At the beginning of June, Dart appealed to the Scottish Government on the basis of Falkirk Council’s non-determination of their application.
Dart Energy’s current application is to extract Coal Bed Methane (CBM) from 22 wells at 14 locations. CBM extraction, an industry relatively new to the UK, involves drilling deep into coal-seams vertically and horizontally for a kilometre or more to remove methane gas. In the CBM process, huge quantities of salty waste-water are pumped out containing naturally-occurring toxic chemicals (some are known carcinogens), and issued, partially-treated, into the River Forth, a RAMSAR site and SSSI. Possible risks include underground migration of toxic gases and water, air pollution linked to fugitive emissions, flares and venting, soil-contamination and problems with heavy traffic.
Although Dart Energy says they do not employ the controversial process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing of underground rocks to release gas), fracking has been used by previous licence-holders – unknown to most local residents – and evidence from elsewhere shows that up to 40% of CBM wells are eventually fracked. There is shale below the coal in Central Scotland, and fracking is inevitable for shale-gas extraction. Dart Energy have a half-share in the licence to extract shale-gas locally.