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.

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.

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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.

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

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