The motion tabled by the Scottish Labour party was passed by 32 votes to 29 with support from the Scottish Green Party and the Liberal Democrats. The SNP put a temporary moratorium on fracking in place in 2015, but have since faced pressure from their own members and anti-fracking campaigners to put in place an outright ban.
Several SNP candidates campaigned on the basis that they would "say NO to fracking", yet all SNP abstained on the vote in parliament yesterday.
Edinburgh Eastern MSP, Ash Denham, took to twitter to confirm that her views on fracking remain unchanged, suggesting that the moratorium was enough to hold back fracking.
I have been clear on my views & they remain unchanged. Our abstention respected the moratorium which ensures no fracking can take place here— Ash Denham MSP (@ashtenRD) June 2, 2016
With the SNP holding a great deal of public support ever since the Scottish Independence referendum many have taken to Twitter in support of the governing party, with their own theories as to why the supposedly anti-fracking party abstained from a vote in parliament on the subject.
One of the most common theories amongst SNP supporting tweeters is that the SNP can’t bring in an outright ban as they would open themselves up to legal challenges which may actually result in the current moratorium being overruled. Supporters of a ban on fracking have questioned why the SNP haven’t just confirmed this theory if it is indeed the case. It would certainly help put an end to the social media speculation.
Also, to everyone on TL who thinks fracking moratorium is legal, but ban not. SNP minister didn't use that argument. Because it's rubbish.— Iain Gray (@IainGrayMSP) June 2, 2016
Sputnik News asked the SNP if this concern of legal challenge was responsible for the surprising abstention.
Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, Paul Wheelhouse MSP said:
"We are deeply skeptical about fracking and, through our moratorium, we have ensured that no fracking can take place in Scotland. Our abstention in this parliamentary vote respects and is in line with that moratorium. In stark contrast to the gung-ho approach of the Tories, we are being rightly cautious."
"We have set out a full research program to be followed by a full consultation of people in Scotland, so that future decisions on fracking are informed by scientific evidence and the views of the people who live and work here.
"We recognize the views expressed in Parliament today and we have committed to ensuring that Parliament has the opportunity to fully consider the expert evidence once it is all available."
While this response in full makes clear the SNP’s stance on the current moratorium and why it is in place, it doesn’t address the issue of the legalities of a ban. It is true that the Scottish Government are not exempt from legal action, and have indeed faced legal challenges in the past; most recently they faced a legal challenge in the European Courts over attempts to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol — though the threat of a legal challenge didn’t stop them voting in favor of the policy in the first instance.
A Scottish Government Spokesperson said:
"Any Government decision could be open to legal challenge, however the Scottish Government’s approach on unconventional oil and gas is one which clearly and consistently promises engagement with the evidence and the public on this issue, ensuring our policy decisions are clearly and robustly evidence based. The comprehensive program of research currently underway will inform an extensive public consultation ensuring that Ministers will have all the information necessary to make the right decision for the people of Scotland."
The Scottish Green Party made clear their view that the Scottish Parliament could indeed ban fracking if it wanted to in a blog post prior to the Scottish Elections in May titled "How Scotland Can Ban Fracking."
They suggest that the ban on the creation of any new nuclear power station is a similar policy, which has yet to face any legal challenge since its introduction in 2007. Their view is that a moratorium is “by definition, no more than a pause that kicks the can down the road."
Jean Urquhart, a former SNP MSP and then Independent MSP when she left the party over their stance on NATO in 2012, told Sputnik that she thought the abstention had nothing to do with legal challenges, but was simply party policy:
"I’m sure the government take legal advice all the time but I don’t think that has anything at all to do with this week’s vote. The SNP have hired researchers to analyze the implications of fracking, it would be foolish to make any changes before that research is completed. What they did this week was vote in line with party policy, I think it would have been strange if they didn’t."