Crack or frack?
The SNP decides whether to allow fracking, and the party hierarchy and the faithful don't really see eye to eye on the matter
The SNP’s rise to power raises all the manifold issues faced by political parties much larger than them. In particular, as membership increases, so the factions swell in number. As both the Conservatives and Labour can testify, keeping in check their various demands becomes impossible. Tough choices about the overall direction of the party must be made, and the SNP is only now beginning to feel this pressure.
A perfect example of these expanding cracks is the conference vote on extending the moratorium on fracking. This issue has been bubbling away in the party for several months now. Both the green and left side of the party oppose fracking on environmental grounds, and to some extent to ensure they are seen as opposing the pro-shale policy of the Tories. This group forms a significant chunk of the party as the loud cheers for ambitious renewable targets already exemplify. They even rallied to form the SNP Members Against Unconventional Gas (Smaug) in anticipation of the upcoming battle.
However the oil and gas industry is more than just a granite cornerstone of SNP economic policy; it is significant part of their DNA. Don’t forget their former leader was an oil and gas economist. With known North Sea reserves declining, job losses rising, a low oil price, and concerns over decreasing Scottish baseload generation, onshore shale gas exploration starts to become more appealing. Additionally, shale gas reserves would help to patch up the gaping hole in the SNP’s economic policy created by the low oil price. Grangemouth based Ineos has been active in the media and at the SNP conference making the case for fracking, with Ineos Director Tom Pickering claiming it is a “once in a generation” operation.
SNP ministers have always been keen to talk up Scottish based industry and more often than not, these companies are energy intensive users. If the SNP wants Scotland to be independent it will need to ensure it is not too reliant on its jaded neighbour to the south for energy security. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are doing their utmost to set up a shale sovereign wealth fund which could be used as either a union carrot or a rUK safety net, in the event of another referendum.
The party has spoken at this conference and it is well and truly an anti-fracking message. They overwhemingly voted in favour of extending the moratorium, with anti-fracking speeches receiving standing ovations and concerns expressed that the party policy is not a complete ban. Although there may be senior members of the party that might be in favour, they are a long long away from winning over the party faithful.
So now the SNP leadership need to weigh the pros and cons of keeping the party happy and taking a political risk for a potential longer term reward. Could this be the beginnings of a move away from reliance on oil to support the economics of independence? This is a tough choice, and with the UK Government now throwing powers at Edinburgh, this represents one of the early tests of SNP unity. The honeymoon for Sturgeon her team may now be coming to an end, and with it the hope that oil and gas could make Scots see an independent future.