Controversial petrochemicals giant Ineos – who own fracking licenses covering 329 square kilometres of central Scotland – are pressing ahead with a massive £17m office complex in Grangemouth, which will act as their new headquarters. This week, the contractor for the new building was announced through the trade press, with the construction company commenting that it’s nice working “with a client that already knows exactly what they want.”
Few would dispute that INEOS know exactly what they want. But given that the firm have publicly stated that they’ll shut down their Grangemouth refinery if fracking doesn’t get the go-ahead in Scotland, it does beg the question – do INEOS know something that the rest of us don’t?
Because last time I checked, fracking doesn’t have the go ahead in Scotland. Unconventional oil and gas extraction was banned – on a temporary basis – in January, and a separate moratorium was placed on underground coal gasification in October. While this was celebrated as a huge victory by anti-fracking campaigners and exploited by the SNP ahead of the election, the fracking industry has remained quietly confident. Fossil fuel extraction is a long game and the frackers are more than happy to play it. In July, Jim Ratcliffe – the shadowy Bond villian-esque billionaire and majority shareholder in INEOS – told The Herald:
[The Scottish Government] are being quite clear. What they’ve said to us is they’re not against fracking. But what they do need to do is get comfortable with whether they’re happy with the risks of fracking in Scotland. They want to spend a couple of years understanding it in more detail. I think that’s a responsible thing for them to do and say. We don’t need to do any fracking for the next couple of years. What we’d like to do is just drill a couple of holes, do the seismic, and just find out what’s down there.”
Right on cue, an 18 month test drilling trial began in October. Meanwhile, INEOS are working on a charm offensive in communities across central Scotland and, through a network of secretive lobbyists, have been trying to exert their influence over decision makers, not least the SNP. Grassroots moves to push the SNP towards backing a full ban on fracking were narrowly defeated at their October conference, with the Scottish Government remaining committed to the existing consultation process during the moratorium, expected to run until mid-2017. What follows the end of the consultation will partly depend on public pressure, and fracking remains one of the few issues in which there’s a serious – and vocal – split within the SNP.
But INEOS do not fuck about with their money. Ratcliffe built his company up from nothing on the basis of taking over other businesses and then ruthlessly cutting costs. When they entered into a collision course with Grangemouth’s highly unionised workforce in 2013, Ratcliffe opted to shut down the plant and lock out the workers and threaten them with the sack, effectively holding the entire Scottish economy to ransom, rather than reinstate one union organiser. With little option, the workforce voted for a pay freeze, pension cuts and signed away their union rights in a bid to save their own jobs, while the Scottish Government chucked a £9 million Regional Selective Assistance grant Ratcliffe’s way (despite his personal net worth of £3.2bn. Ratcliffe’s yacht alone is worth £130m).
Ratcliffe is a man who likes getting his own way. While INEOS are making provision for shipping US shale gas across the Atlantic, they are also pressing hard for unconventional oil and gas extraction to begin in central Scotland, which contains an estimated 80 trillion cubic feet of gas and six billion barrels of oil. Their quiet confidence about the fracking morotorium ending in their favour and their investment in a £17m four-storey, 74,000 square foot headquarters in Grangemouth may not be such a coincidence. Whether the Scottish Government can triangulate themselves out of this situation remains to be seen.