Shale gas is not the answer to our energy problems – and here’s why

Shale gas is not the answer to our energy problems – and it could be a fracking disaster, writes Guy Shrubsole.

Shale gas: To frack or not to frack, that is the frikking question

This weekend, protestors will gather near the small village of Hesketh Bank in Lancashire to protest against the onset of shale gas fracking – also known as hydraulic fracturing – in the UK.

Shale gas extraction is controversial – not least for its record in the US of contaminating water supplies, a scandal graphically outlined in the documentary Gasland.

The nascent UK shale industry claims that tougher environmental regulations in place in Britain mean such fears are not applicable here. But whether or not this is true, there are other, even more serious reasons for opposing fracking in the UK.

On the eve of Camp Frack, it is important to set out why shale gas is at best a distraction from resolving the UK’s energy needs – and at worst could be a disaster for the environment.


Here are four reasons to join the protestors in opposing fracking in the UK:

1. Shale gas is not a green fuel

Industry boosters for shale gas argue that, because natural gas has a lower carbon intensity when burnt than coal, it is better for the climate.

Matt Ridley, for instance – self-styled ‘rational optimist’ and author of a report (pdf) on shale gas for the climate sceptic think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation – claims that shale gas will “accelerate the decarbonisation of the world economy” by displacing coal.

Yet this overlooks a crucial problem: the impact of natural gas leaks.

Natural gas is methane – a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – and when it leaks into the atmosphere, has a much higher impact than if it were burned and converted into energy and CO2. Our systems for extracting, storing and transporting natural gas are very leaky: the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that some three trillion cubic feet of methane leak into the air every year worldwide.

A recent study (pdf) by the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) shows that, even if the whole world were to switch from coal to gas, the climate benefits of doing so through reduced CO2 emissions could be easily offset by increased methane leakage.

Shale gas extraction – fracking – appears to be even more leaky. The shale gas industry claims leaks from fracking are small, but a study (pdf) by Cornell University begs to differ: it finds that leaks are around 3.6%-7.9% of the total drilled, much higher than conventional production methods. This would give shale gas a carbon footprint comparable to coal.

It may be that leaks from fracking can be reduced, but the UK government hasn’t conducted any analysis of this, and isn’t expecting shale gas companies to monitor fugitive emissions.

2. The UK can’t afford a second dash for gas – not if it wants to meet its climate targets

If methane leaks can be plugged to acceptably low levels, then there are parts of the world for which a rapid switch from coal to gas could make sense – China, for example. Not so in the UK, where we have already reaped the environmental benefits of a ‘dash to gas’ in the 1990s. In climate terms, the UK cannot afford a second dash to gas.

As a recent Green Alliance briefing (pdf) argues:

“Relying on unabated gas which is cheap to build now doesn’t lead to lower cost decarbonisation; it will simply load the cost of decarbonisation into the 2020s… If there is a second dash for gas… the resulting carbon emissions from electricity generation could be six times greater than the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for 2030.”

And as Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has commented:

“If we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels… Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel from a climate perspective. Carbon-free power is the bridge fuel until we can figure out how to go carbon negative on a large scale in the second half of the century.”

3. Investing in shale gas will divert money away from renewable

The UK has an abundance of renewable energy sources – particularly wind, wave and tidal power – and is in the process of building a promising renewable energy industry. Pouring money into shale gas instead – on the grounds that it could be a cheaper source of power – would not only be misguided, it could kill off the UK’s green economy at birth.

Energy economist Dieter Helm argues that, since gas is relatively cheap and offshore wind relatively expensive, it is “better to spend the extra pound on R&D [research and development] than offshore wind”, re-think our renewables target and switch to gas instead, and bet on renewable technologies being cheaper by 2030.

This ‘alternative’ energy strategy is fundamentally flawed: it wouldn’t cut carbon to the levels needed (see point 2 above) and moreover, R&D cannot reduce costs like actual deployment can. This is because deployment of any technology results in a learning curve which reduces its costs over time.

A recent study of offshore wind forecast that its costs can be cut by 25% over the next decade – as a result of learning curves and from simply building a native British supply chain, which will insulate against currency movements.

4. Shale gas could turn out to be a bubble, with reserves over-hyped – and not a long-term solution to the UK’s energy needs

Lastly, the hype about shale gas could all prove to be hot air. Where the UK’s huge potential for renewables is not in doubt, we already know shale gas is only ever likely to supply a small proportion of the UK’s energy: data from shale company Cuadrilla suggests shale gas could ultimately supply 5-10% of the UK’s gas requirements.

Chatham House, meanwhile, note in their report, ‘The “Shale Gas Revolution”: Hype and Reality’ (pdf), that shale gas wells deplete much quicker than conventional wells.


In short, shale gas is not the solution to our energy problems – and it could be a fracking disaster.

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  • Nick Grealy

    The Howarth study was just one and was immediately questioned by several other studies. This one from Carnegie Mellon University was funded by the Sierra Club among others
    Et many others.

    Top ten myths about shale gas at

    Gasland was a valuable movie to highlight problems but didn’t offer any solutions. What problems there have been have been fixed, but the movie is at best out of date and at worst completely irrelevant in the present day European context.

    1. Shale fluids are not secret. Even Texas passed a law mandating full disclosure .
    2. Dick Cheney has no powers in Europe.
    3. Josh Fox glossed over the fact that his permanent home is in New York City. The fact that he can afford to turn down $100K or three times the annual family income of Wayne County speaks volumes. He can afford his principles, his weekend neighbours often cannot.
    4. The facts are clear. 14 families in Dimock did have their well water affected. Over 900 other families in the town either did not.
    5. In December 2010 the families, Cabot Petroleum and the PA government agreed a settlement that allowed two things, A payment of twice the value of their homes and permission for the company to continue drilling. In July 2011, Cabot revealed that the Dimock wells were the most productive that they ever had. Under the terms of the original lease the Dimock families are earning up to $3K per day in royalties.
    6. Water on fire : A: Methane contamination of water has been well known in Pennsylvania and many other area that used to have coal mining. See this
    7. Water on fire could only possibly be an issue to the private water wells common in rural America. In the UK according to DECC 99% of us get water from the local utility. You can go to your local water company site and put in your post code and see a full report. Thames Water in London tells me I have levels of arsenic, mercury and even methane. But obviously within limits.

    The three legs of sustainable development are low carbon, affordability and security. Shale gas wins on all counts, not the narrow argument that it isn’t perfectly clean (like nuclear?!)
    8. People who think we should slow down because shale hasn’t been studied should read the thousand page plus report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation which studied every possible objection and found no grounds to continue the moratorium.

    Among the issues studied was that of water use. The DEC found that a full scale fracking implementation would result in extra water use of less than one quarter of one percent

    Finally, there are game changing amounts of natural gas in both Europe and probably the UK, equal to several times the energy found in the North Sea. The Chatham House study has been proven wrong by events for example.
    Let’s go back to the 1970’s : Would we have looked the gift of North Sea oil and gas in the mouth? Why are we doing it today?
    Gas can contribute hundreds of million in taxes instead of taking billions of subsidies that cannibalise spending on health, education, the arts and social solidarity. It also sends billions of pounds to other countries that we then often invade while endangering working class people who can’t afford first homes let alone second ones.

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  • Guy

    Thanks, Nick. Don’t know why you weren’t able to comment earlier, glad LFF were able to sort that.

    Just to clarify, as I say at the start of my piece, I’m not attempting to pass judgement here on the local and regional environmental impacts of shale gas, or whether the situation in the US is applicable to the UK on these counts – though clearly this is of huge importance. So I’m not sure why you felt the need to post all those ‘myth busters’ about shale gas, as the areas they cover aren’t the focus of my article.

    Thanks, though, for the links to the other studies of shale’s carbon footprint. As the Carnegie-Mellon (Sierra Club-funded) study states, “Methane leakage rates throughout the natural gas system … are a major concern and our analysis has an implied fugitive emissions rate of 2%, consistent with the EPA natural gas industry study.” It is of course the level of such fugitive emissions that is in such doubt, that is questioned by Howarth et al., and remains uncertain and variable according to site. After all, as the IHS-CERA study you link to also notes, “data on unconventional gas well GHG emissions is currently lacking due to the fact that they are not adequately measured. More reliable data is needed in order to produce estimates with any degree of certainty.”

    Given such uncertainties, more research *must* to be conducted before the shale industry is allowed to rush headlong into developing shale plays in the UK (or anywhere else), on the pretext that it has a lower carbon footprint than coal.

    You don’t address my point about a second dash to gas in the UK being unsustainable in climate terms.

    When you refer to the ‘billions of subsidies” I assume you are of course referring to the billions of dollars worth of fossil fuel subsidies that are spent annually worldwide (see for example).

    And when you say: “Would we have looked the gift of North Sea oil and gas in the mouth? Why are we doing it today?”, I completely agree with you: we’re staring the next North Sea oil in the face – it just happens to be called North Sea wind. I don’t just mean this rhetorically: the amount of energy we could obtain from developing offshore wind in our territorial waters is of the same order as what we obtained from peak output of North Sea O&G. (See for the figures.) The difference with renewable energy, of course, is that it doesn’t deplete. So unlike with North Sea oil (and unlike with shale gas), deploying renewables represents a serious, long-term, strategic investment for the UK.

  • Leon Wolfson

    3. – Shale gas is at least affordable on the energy bill, expensive renewable obligation generators which will push prices up well beyond the poor’s reach, especially those on fixed incomes, are not.

    This is a terrible point, and thoroughly discredits the article, along with the complete lack of discussion of nuclear energy.

    “Carbon Negative” – is that before or after millions freeze to death?

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  • nearsite

    The only requirements for your beliefs are withering disdain for reality and an unquestioned faith in the unknowable. Sound like any other religions you know?