25 September 2015: We need evidence-based campaigning

“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”.

(see http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/25/lord-smith-hugely-sceptical-of-fracking-for-shale-oil-in-the-uk)

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.



  1. Richard Burnett-Hall

    A couple of points in response – not decisive perhaps, but I hope relevant.
    1. This case for shale gas is perfectly reasonable (I used to be of the same view myself) BUT it depends on there being strong regulation, effective monitoring, and vigorous enforcement against all cases of non-compliance. However, with the Environment Agency deprived of funds, and a government gung-ho for fracking everything frackable, can we really be sure we will get the type of regulation, monitoring and enforcement needed? Consider how air pollution in the UK has been known to be way in excess of binding EU limits for many years (it would be even more in excess if all the monitoring was done at nose rather than roof level). Regulated industries have a long history of capturing their regulators (VW may prove to be yet another case of that), and I for one have very little confidence that in this country shale gas emissions will be effectively monitored and breaches of limits vigorously enforced.
    2. As the note accepts, shale gas should only be used as a means of lowering carbon emissions while the UK transits from coal to renewables, i.e. its use is to be a temporary measure only. Just like income tax! The more investment there is in fracking, the more resistance there will be to moving away from it, even after renewable technologies have become more mature and more cost-effective. For this reason also, I would prefer the UK to avoid fracking unless its costs vis-a-vis the costs of renewables are decisively less.
    3. It boils down to whether you are prepared to trust the government to act responsibly, to move as rapidly as feasible to renewables, and to protect the environment meanwhile. Given its record since last May, I can’t.

  2. Jon Trevelyan

    Stephen’s reply:

    Thanks for commenting. These are all fair points. I certainly don’t think UK government will move rapidly on renewables or protect the environment without considerable pressure. Green groups are not very influential in the UK at present, so I think they need to focus pressure on a couple of winnable campaigns. They might well win the anti-fracking campaign, but that focus will mean more coal burn.

    You’re right about the Environment Agency. But I think that EPA performance over last few years shows that it is possible, even in a country not very pro-regulation, to regulate shale gas sufficiently to make it better than coal. I’d be interested in others’ views on this.

    Gas will be needed in UK, for heating at least, until 2050 – probably longer. Hence importance of question ‘where should the gas come from?’ Shale gas better than LNG from Qatar, both for climate reasons and for human rights reasons.

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