UK climate campaigners should support fracking for shale gas. Shale gas would enable the UK to reduce the burning of coal, and also the import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).
Shale gas is not the best energy source. Renewables are better. But we cannot afford to make the best the enemy of the good. Only seven per cent of UK energy came from renewables in 2013. Even if the goal is to get all energy from renewables, this will not be achieved any time soon. The only country that has set itself a target to reach 100 per cent renewables for all energy (heating and transport, as well as electricity) is Denmark. The Danes have a reasonable chance of meeting their target year of 2050 because they are well ahead of the UK. About a quarter of Danish energy came from renewables in 2013. However well the UK performs on renewable energy expansion (and there is clearly scope for much better performance on this), gas will remain part of the energy mix for many decades. The questions ‘what sort of gas?’ and ‘where should it come from?’ cannot be avoided simply by arguing that renewables are best.
Shale gas is better for the climate than coal or LNG
The Task Force on Shale Gas, of which I am an advisor, published a report on the climate impact today. This concludes that, provided it is well regulated to minimise emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), fracking does not result in higher emissions than conventional gas extraction does. So shale gas is much better for the climate than coal is. In 2011 three Cornell University professors published a paper arguing that, because of methane emissions during fracking, shale gas is actually worse for the climate than coal is. The task force does not agree; they cite instead a forthcoming paper from the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College which reviews 424 academic, government, industry and NGO publications, and concludes that, even taking account of emissions from the supply chain, shale gas is only 41-64 per cent as climate-damaging as coal is.
The task force also concludes that shale gas is less bad for the climate than LNG is. This is in line with the British government’s assessment. In 2013 a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) report found that the climate impact of shale gas is around ten per cent lower than the impact of LNG. This paper has been criticised by anti-fracking campaigners for accepting industry assumptions on methane leakage rates. In 2013, information on leakage rates from fracking sites in the US was not extensive. Much more information has been collected over the past two years, as the US government belatedly tightens regulation. The data confirms that the assumptions used by DECC were broadly correct.
It is better for energy security and more ethical than other gas sources
Locally produced shale gas would contribute to energy security as well as climate protection. The UK has been a net importer of gas since 2004. Much of the imported gas comes in pipelines from Norway, which does not represent a security or climate threat. Much comes from Qatar as LNG, which represents unnecessary climate pollution. In future, significant quantities may be imported from Russia, which certainly does represent a security threat. Most of the money paid for Russian fossil fuels ends up in the Kremlin. Putin could not afford to wage his wars without this revenue.
Locally produced shale gas could also reduce the need to import gas from countries which do not respect human rights. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy which gives no rights, and little protection, to its many migrant workers. Russia is a sham democracy which tramples on the rights of its own citizens as well as those of its neighbours. And the EU wants to build a pipeline to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Human Rights Watch report that “torture and ill-treatment persists with impunity” in Azerbaijan.
Most campaigners against shale gas do not address the issue of where gas should come from: ‘anywhere but here’ is their unspoken motto. Those concerned about climate protection, international security and human rights should rise above this NIMBYism.
The prime objective should be climate protection
Investment in shale gas might slow down the expansion of renewables, by diverting capital and political attention. If the objective is to expand renewables as fast as possible – as it is in Germany’s Energiewende, for example – fracking is a distraction. But if the objective is to protect the climate, which is what it ought to be, shale gas should be used as part of the low carbon transition. And some of the revenue the government receives from fracking should – as the task force recommends – be used to support renewables, advanced nuclear and carbon capture and storage. This would ensure that a UK shale gas industry enhanced rather than inhibited the development of clean energy.
This article was first published by the Green Alliance