Sustainability

UK government advocates ‘responsible’ fracking

fracking

Energy Secretary Edward Davey yesterday (9 September) backed the ‘safe and responsible’ exploration of shale gas in the UK in a speech to the Royal Society.

Davey insisted that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for ‘unconventional’ shale gas could be used in line with the UK’s climate change targets, but only if the UK makes ‘extra efforts in other areas’ and puts in place ‘a range of techniques to reduce emissions’. He added that if developed in an ‘economically viable’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ way, fracking ‘would benefit the UK’ – increasing energy security, providing more jobs and tax revenues.

The speech accompanied the release of a new report – ‘Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use’ – which estimates that the carbon footprint of UK produced shale gas would likely be ‘significantly less’ than coal and lower than imported liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The report – by the Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) Chief Senior Advisor Professor, David Mackay FRS, and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State, Dr Timothy Stone – also assesses the compatibility of the potential greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fracking with the UK’s legislated target to reduce GHG emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and decommission around a fifth of its coal and oil-fired power plants by 2020.

Industry is exploring the amount of shale gas that might be ‘safely’ and ‘economically’ extracted in the UK, but as yet, no companies have permission to exploit shale gas resources through fracking.

Report details

The main findings of the report are:

  • UK shale gas production and use would displace imported LNG, or piped gas from outside Europe;
  • the short-term and long-term effects of shale gas exploitation in the UK on global emissions rates are ‘complex’ to predict and depend ‘strongly’ on global climate policies; and
  • without global climate policies, new fossil fuel exploitation is ‘likely’ to lead to an increase in cumulative GHG emissions and the ‘risk’ of climate change.

The conclusions of the report are:

  • if ‘adequately’ regulated, local GHG emissions from shale gas operations should represent only a ‘small proportion’ of the total carbon footprint of shale gas, which is ‘likely to be dominated’ by CO2 emissions associated with its combustion;
  • the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction and use is ‘likely’ to be in the range 200-253 grammes (g) CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per kilowatt hour (kWh) of chemical energy, which is comparable to that of ‘conventional’ gas extraction (199-207g CO2e/kWh), and lower than the carbon footprint of LNG (233-270g CO2e/kWh);
  • when shale gas is used for electricity generation, its carbon footprint will be ‘significantly lower’ than the carbon footprint of coal; and
  • with additional emissions-reduction measures – including a global deal on emissions reductions and the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies – the net effect of fracking on global cumulative GHG emissions would be relatively small.

Commenting on the report, Mackay said: “Our study indicates that shale gas, if properly regulated, is likely to have a greenhouse gas footprint no worse than the other fossil fuels that society currently depends on. To ensure that shale gas exploitation doesn't increase cumulative greenhouse gas emissions it is crucial that society maintains efforts to drive down the costs of low-carbon technologies, including carbon capture and storage."

Stone added: “The debate in the UK around shale gas needs to be based on facts and not strenuous assertions. This report should help provide some clarity around some of the facts of shale gas.”

Shale gas is ‘part of the answer’ davey

Speaking at the Royal Society, Davey said: “Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal. We have to face it: North Sea gas production is falling and we are become increasingly reliant on gas imports. So UK shale gas could increase our energy security by cutting those imports.

“Nobody can say, for sure, how much onshore UK shale gas resource exists or how much of it can be commercially extracted, so we can’t bank on shale gas to solve all our energy challenges, today or this decade. We must make sure that the rigorous regulation we are putting in place is followed to the letter, to protect the local environment. We must pursue vigorously the development and deployment of technologies that will reduce emissions to protect the planet.”

Commenting on the new report, he added: “This report shows that the continued use of gas is perfectly consistent with our carbon budgets over the next couple of decades… It should help reassure environmentalists like myself, that we can safely pursue UK shale gas production and meet our national emissions reductions targets designed to help tackle climate change. Let me be clear – here at home we must not and will not allow shale gas production to compromise our focus on boosting renewables, nuclear and other low-carbon technologies.”

‘Blunder after blunder’

Other environmentalists seem less than convinced, though, with Friends of the Earth's (FoE) Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton responding to Davey’s speech by noting: "Ed Davey admits that shale gas won't cut fuel bills or guarantee energy security.

"Despite this he's pushing ahead with this dash for gas that has seen local communities face blunder after blunder from fracking companies and regulators and where the only thing that is guaranteed is that it will threaten our climate targets.

"Mr Davey's chief scientist says that without a global climate deal, new fossil fuel extraction will increase the risk of climate change. Instead of fracking, Mr Davey's department should concentrate on improving energy efficiency and supporting renewables."

Indeed, environmentalists are still vociferously calling for the government to focus research and investment on renewables rather than shale gas, and insisting that fracking will maintain the UK’s reliance on climate-change-inducing fossil fuels.

 FoE’s Senior Energy Campaigner Tony Bosworth, for example, told Resource: “At the global level, there are known resources of conventional gas equivalent to 120 years of current consumption. If we want to tackle climate change, we can’t afford to even burn a small percentage of that, so there’s little point in trying to find more fossil fuels.”

‘Baseless economics’

The UK coalition government has been vocal in its support of shale gas exploration: while introducing the Spending Review for 2015/16 in June, Chancellor George Osborne said he wanted to “put Britain at the forefront of exploiting shale gas"; and while launching a consultation on a proposed tax regime for shale gas in July, he further claimed fracking has “the potential to create thousands of jobs and keep energy bills low for millions of people”. 

However, according to the Independent, ‘influential’ economist Lord Stern is ‘puzzled’ by such claims, saying: “I do think it’s a bit odd to say you know that it will bring the price of gas down. That doesn’t look like sound economics to me. It’s baseless economics.”

He explained that since gas is a commodity that can be traded on the international market, it will be sold to the highest bidder whether inside the UK or out; thus, a UK shale gas boom would be unlikely to affect world prices.

Environmental concerns

Opponents of fracking have warned of environmental concerns when it comes to the technique, which they say prolongs the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, contributes to climate change, causes air pollution, and can contaminate drinking supplies with methane and toxic chemicals and trigger earthquakes. 

Protests against fracking have been gaining in prominence, with Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavillion and former leader of the Green Party, being arrested for protesting at energy firm Cuadrilla’s Balcombe site in West Sussex on 19 August.

Learn more about fracking, and read the new DECC report.