“When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?” John Maynard Keynes
Yesterday I was on a panel at the launch of a report by the Sustainable Gas Institute on ‘Methane & CO2 emissions from the natural gas supply chain’. (http://www.sustainablegasinstitute.org/publications/white-paper-1/) OK, not the sexiest title, but an excellent piece of research. The authors analysed data from 452 other publications – academic, industry, public sector, NGO. They conclude that emissions from the supply chain (ie. before the gas is actually burnt) could be as much as a third of total lifecycle emissions of gas-generated electricity, and that good practice can significantly reduce these emissions. The report highlights many areas where there is inadequate data – including everywhere except North America. The authors stress the need for more research (they are academics, after all…). With all these caveats, the report finds that, taking lifecycle emissions into account, gas is only 40-60% as climate-damaging as coal is.
Most green campaigners won’t have a problem with that finding. They accept – when asked – that gas is less bad than coal. What many of them will find difficult to accept is the report’s conclusion that lifecyle emissions from fracking and shale gas are essentially the same as those from conventional gas, as long as fracking is well regulated (in particular that wells are properly constructed to minimise methane leakage).
The Sustainable Gas Institute does not make recommendations on what governments should do on the basis of the evidence it has collected; it is an academic research institute, not a think tank or lobby group. But the implication for policy-makers is pretty clear: gas, including shale gas, has a significantly lower climate impact than coal does, so can be used as part of the low-carbon transition.
However, significant uncertainties remain. Shale gas development should be undertaken with caution, and firmly regulated by a well-resourced regulator. In the face of uncertainties, green campaigners often cite the EU’s precautionary principle. This says that unnecessary risks which could lead to major problems should not be undertaken. It does not say that no risks should ever be taken. And it says that the risk of inaction should be taken into account, as well as the risk of action. (See http://www.cer.org.uk/insights/genetically-modified-crops-time-move-theological-dispute).
With shale gas, the risk of action is that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions will be higher than those from coal. If a UK shale industry develops, and monitoring proves this to be the case, the industry could and should be closed down. The risk of inaction is that the UK will continue to burn coal for longer than necessary because it does not use a fuel which, on the evidence so far, is less climate-damaging.
The rational response to this situation is to proceed with caution – but to proceed. A moratorium on gas fracking, which many are demanding, would not move the debate forward, since evidence cannot be collecting without some wells. A moratorium on fracking would also result in unnecessary coal burn.
Declaration of financial interest: I am an adviser to the Shale Gas Task Force. I get paid for this. The Task Force is funded by shale companies, as the website makes clear (see https://www.taskforceonshalegas.uk). However, I am not supporting shale gas because I am paid to do so. Indeed I first supported shale gas in June 2014 (see http://climateanswers.info/2014/05/the-climate-case-for-shale-gas/), before I was asked to advise the Task Force.
As I said in that blog, I support shale gas, but not shale oil. Chris Smith take the same view:
“The environmental case for shale oil is much more adverse than for shale gas”.
As former chair of the Environment Agency and former Shadow Environment Secretary (when I was his researcher), Chris knows a lot about these issues. He is certainly not someone who would take any line he did not agree with because funders had asked him to. Instead, Chris takes his positions on the basis of the evidence. Evidence-based policy-making is very desirable – though the risk of policy-based evidence-making must always be guarded against (see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14767720600752619).
Evidence-based campaigning is also very desirable – and in sadly short supply. So here’s my suggestion. Green groups should drop their demand for a shale gas moratorium, though retaining campaigns to ensure strong regulation and monitoring of fracking. They would then be able to put much more effort into campaigning against coal. If the monitoring of initial UK fracking wells shows that greenhouse gas emissions are indeed lower than from coal, green groups would then focus even more on driving coal out of the system as quickly as possible. If the monitoring shows that shale gas is not better than coal, pro-shale gas campaigners like me will accept that we were wrong, and stop arguing for it.
Happy to make a solemn vow to do this if the evidence points that way. I do after all have form on the matter of changing my opinion.