21 September 2015: My online debate with Friends of the Earth about shale gas

Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth’s Energy Campaigner, wrote a response to my blog in favour of shale gas. He shows a touching faith in government figures:

“The Committee on Climate Change says there is no role for conventional coal-fired power generation beyond the early 2020s, and government figures say their use will have virtually ended by this point.”

Indeed they do. But they are projections, not policy commitments. Labour and the Lib Dems made manifesto promises to end unabated coal in the 2020s, but the Tories did not. And the Tories won. There is no guarantee (and at present little likelihood) of a non-Tory government before 2025. A Conservative government might even disregard the sensible advice of the Committee on Climate Change, despite John Gummer’s valiant efforts. So the fact that “the shale gas industry doesn’t think we will have appreciable quantities of shale gas before the early to mid-2020s” does not necessarily mean that shale gas will be too late to replace coal.

If appreciable quantities arrive (which I accept is uncertain) they will certainly not be too late to replace other gas, including LNG – which Tony fails to mention. Local shale gas is about 10% less climate damaging than LNG is. That’s an improvement worth having.

Tony says that I skate over the issue of unburnable carbon, and that:

“fracking would set up a whole new fossil fuel industry, making the problem worse by adding to this unburnable stockpile.”

OK, I should have addressed this issue – my only excuse is that I was trying to keep the article short. I agree that most fossil fuels should be left in the ground. I’d be delighted if all fossil fuel use could be ended overnight. But it can’t be. So we have to set priorities. First to go should be coal.. Then oil. Cars should be electrified, with biofuels reserved for aviation and HGVs. So, however well we do on energy efficiency (and I agree with Tony that we should do much better), we will need more electricity. That’s why all forms of low-carbon electricity generation – renewables, CCS and nuclear – are needed.

Tony notes that “progress on CCS is very slow. What happens if it isn’t deployed?” He’s certainly right about slow progress on CCS. I wrote in July 2011 that:

There is no obvious reason why it shouldn’t work. But we won’t be absolutely sure until it has been demonstrated at scale and integrated throughout the process. That won’t happen for the next five years at least, probably longer. So it isn’t sensible, in my view, to put all our eggs in the CCS basket.”

That’s why I now support nuclear power. I’d be interested to hear from Tony what FoE’s latest thinking is on whether nuclear power has any role to play as a low-carbon bridge technology.

Gas is the least-bad of the fossil fuels. It should be used in power generation to shut down coal as soon as possible – I’d say end of 2016; we’re in a climate emergency. Tony says that:

“Friends of the Earth has calculated that the UK can move to generating three-quarters of its electricity from renewables by 2030”.

But that’s just electricity, which is only about a fifth of the UK’s total energy use. Gas is the main fuel used for heating – and should in my view be more widely used in transport, because gas produce less air pollution than diesel or petrol vehicles. They’re not as good as electric vehicles – but the transport fleet will not become all-electric for several decades. So the UK will be using gas for several decades.

Tony writes:

“Stephen Tindale says the view of anti-fracking campaigners is ‘anywhere but here’. He couldn’t be more wrong. The message is a very clear ‘not here, not anywhere’.”

Tony has misread what I wrote. I did not ask whether anti-shale campaigners think fracking should be allowed anywhere. What I wrote was:

“Most campaigners against shale gas do not address the issue of where gas should come from.”

Tony doesn’t really address this issue either. He refers to National Grid suggestions that the UK could get most gas imports from Norway in 2030. I’d like the reference, so I can read this National Grid report – not least to find out what ‘most’ actually means in this context, and what assumptions National Grid makes about UK North Sea production. I expect that they assume maximum production. FoE opposes this. If their opposition is successful, that will lead to more imports.

Shale gas would cut the need for the UK to import from despotic countries like Qatar. Don’t FoE think human rights worth considering?

I agree with Tony that we need:

“a nationwide, economy-wide energy efficiency programme and a vastly-increased role for renewable power”.

And I agree that the current Government policy of restricting onshore wind is not sensible (though I think there is a case for reducing solar subsidies, since solar costs have fallen dramatically). Eventually, an energy-efficient UK could get all its energy from renewables (though not all renewables are good – remember biofuels?). But it will take many decades to get to that destination, even if it is the desired goal. Ignoring the interim years is not helpful for climate protection.




  1. Michael Roberts

    Good provocative article! How can I reblog on word press blog?

  2. Left-wing hysteria from “Earth Day” 1970:“We have about five more years at the odstiue to do something.” — Kenneth Watt, ecologist“Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” — George Wald, Harvard Biologist“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Barry Commoner, Washington University biologist“Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.” — New York Times editorial, the day after the first Earth Day“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist“By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.” — Denis Hayes, chief organizer for Earth Day“Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — Peter Gunter, professor, North Texas State University“Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….” — Life Magazine, January 1970“At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Kenneth Watt, Ecologist“Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist“We are prospecting for the very last of our resources and using up the nonrenewable things many times faster than we are finding new ones.” — Martin Litton, Sierra Club director “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’” — Kenneth Watt, Ecologist“Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” — Sen. Gaylord Nelson“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt, EcologistAnd, yet, leftists, like “Benji” join this cult in ever increasing numbers every year.

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