The climate case against shale gas

fracking3This post is by Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner.

It’s no surprise that a task force funded by the shale gas industry has produced a report saying fracking can help tackle climate change. But its arguments – repeated in the blog here this week by Stephen Tindale, an advisor to the task force – doesn’t present the whole picture and glosses over some vital issues.

The fracking industry and its advocates tell us that shale gas is cleaner than coal, and that we must shift from coal to gas to cut emissions, as happened in the US. But that’s a red herring. First, as four eminent energy academics concluded earlier this year, the jury is still out on the relative climate impact of coal and shale gas. Nor is the US picture as the industry paints it. Recent research found that the main cause of falling emissions in the US was the economic slowdown and that the coal-to-gas shift played only a minor role. In addition, these emissions weren’t avoided but were simply exported as US coal exports increased and the glut of coal on the international market caused its price to drop.

New gas is incompatible with climate change targets
There is also a very large question mark over whether fracking would – or even could – replace coal in the UK. 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. But the shale gas industry doesn’t think we will have appreciable quantities of shale gas before the early to mid-2020s. This is too late to replace coal.

The picture painted of shale gas is as a ‘transition’ fuel, helping us move to a renewable-powered future. But the Conservative manifesto promised a “significant expansion in … new gas” presumably, in their eyes, supplied by UK-produced shale gas. This isn’t shale gas as part of a transition, it’s shale gas as a destination. And the Committee on Climate Change has said that the construction of significant new gas-fired power generation capacity would be “completely incompatible” with the UK’s legally binding climate change targets.

Adding to the unburnable stockpile
Are we going to get a renewable-powered future? Not with current government policies of restricting onshore wind and slashing solar subsidies. And earmarking revenue from fracking to support renewables, as the task force suggests, isn’t the answer. The UK has, for the first time, dropped out of the top 10 in an international league table on renewable energy. We need action and support now, not possible funding sometime in the future.

The task force talks up carbon capture and storage, saying it is essential if shale gas develops at scale. But progress on CCS is very slow. What happens if it isn’t deployed?
Like the task force, Stephen Tindale skates over the issue of unburnable carbon. Experts say we will have to leave around 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves underground if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fracking would set up a whole new fossil fuel industry, making the problem worse by adding to this unburnable stockpile. And neither he nor the task force addresses if, or how, we will get other countries to produce less gas if we start fracking. Fracking is presented as a solution for the UK, what happens elsewhere is disregarded.

In the words of John Ashton, a former special adviser on climate change to Labour and Tory foreign secretaries, “You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time”.

How much gas do we really need?
Importantly, there’s no need to step on the gas to address energy security concerns. The first question to ask should not be “where can we get more gas?” but “how much gas do we really need?” Analysis by Friends of the Earth shows that even with fracking, UK gas imports are likely to be the same in 2030 as they are now. But, if we adopted a suite of ‘Climate Safe’ policies including economy-wide energy efficiency and faster development of renewables, then we could cut gas imports by up to 30 per cent. According to National Grid, we could get most of that gas from Norway which, as Stephen Tindale points out, does not represent a security or climate threat.

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’. Campaigning against fracking is not NIMBYism. Local communities have valid, well-founded reasons for not wanting this risky process in their local area. Fracking was banned last year in New York State because of the health risks. Communities don’t want fracking near them, but they don’t want anyone else to suffer either.

Other solutions can be implemented quickly
Tackling climate change has to start with leaving fossil fuels in the ground. How can the UK go to the Paris climate talks and call for action to cut emissions when it is government policy to “maximise the economic exploitation of fossil fuels”, or, in other words, squeeze every last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea and to push ahead with fracking as fast as possible?

We know what the answers to our energy problems are: a nationwide, economy-wide energy efficiency programme and a vastly-increased role for renewable power. And, unlike fracking, these solutions can be implemented quickly. Friends of the Earth has calculated that the UK can move to generating three-quarters of its electricity from renewables by 2030. It is this possibility that is most threatened by fracking in Britain, not the coal industry.

An energy system based around energy efficiency and renewables would bring a multiple win for the UK: better for the climate, better for energy security, better for energy bills, better for jobs and better for the economy.

@tonybosworth

8 comments

  • 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.

    I’ve posted my response to Tony’s other comments on my Climate Answers website at http://climateanswers.info/2015/09/21-september-2015-my-online-debate-with-friends-of-the-earth-about-shale-gas/

  • Would you explain the precise meaning of “four eminent energy academics concluded earlier this year, the jury is still out …..”?

    If they don’t know, how can you be sure it’s a ‘red herring’?

  • Stephen claims that I don’t address the point of where should we get our gas from. My blog states clearly that a suite of ‘Climate Safe’ policies could cut UK gas imports by up to 30 per cent, and that, according to National Grid, we could get most of that gas from Norway.

  • I go along with nearly everything Tony Bosworth says, but one cannot ignore totally the relevant economics. If the cost of extracting shale gas in the UK proves to be, say, half the best available price of gas from anywhere else, then there would be a strong case for using it – but also taxing it heavily to raise significant revenues for supporting renewable technologies. But if UK shale gas costs are merely similar to or more than those likely to obtain for gas from Norway for the foreseeable future, then we should indeed leave the UK gas in the ground.
    A further aspect is that once renewable technologies become competitive on cost per kW/hr, as some at least certainly will be relatively soon, the only argument for anything else lies in the erratic nature of wind and the uselessness of solar panels after dark. Interconnectors allowing renewable generators from further away to provide backup are part of the solution, but are never likely to be enough. Governments and others thus assume that we must have nuclear generators, despite their massive costs, to provide the baseload. This is a misconception.
    Water is even more essential than power, but we do not rely on it raining every day to provide our needs because the rain water is stored in rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. Similarly, power storage technologies, such as batteries, compressed air and hydrogen production, are bound to become an essential component of future carbon-free power generation systems. Several of these technologies are already well advanced, and their costs per kW/hr are approaching economic viability, i.e. they are coming close to the cost per kW/hr of electricity from “peak power” generators. As the latter are used merely to provide backup for when renewable power is not available, their cost per kW/hr is much higher than the figures usually quoted for gas generators, since they are inevitably idle much of the time, and their capital and operating costs have to be covered out of what they generate in the relatively few hours they are in production. If tax revenues from UK shale gas would be applied exclusively to the development of efficient storage technologies, I could be persuaded to support its development and use for the next decade or so.

    • ” … the only argument for anything else lies in the erratic nature of wind and the uselessness of solar panels after dark.”

      Don’t forget that solar panels are nearly useless during the daytime if there’s cloud cover.

      ” ..Interconnectors allowing renewable generators from further away to provide backup are part of the solution, but are never likely to be enough.”

      If you’re at the exit of an interconnector, how do determine that the source is via renewable? Nearly everyone connected to the European interconnector is consuming power courtesy of German & Polish lignite.

  • For all the short term rhetoric, there is one truth: long term we will not be using fossil fuels for lots of reasons. If you look back from the year 2065 at the decisions made in 2015, will we be proud or ashamed of burning fossil fuels for a moment longer than absolutely necessary?

    Which then begs the question: how long will we need fossil fuels? There are lots of ways of spending the £20,000,000,000 over the twenty years it will take to get Hinkley Point commissioned. (not to mention the £100,000,000,000 it will take our grandchildren to de-commission it ! ).

    Why not spend a tiny portion of this VAST sum of money on setting up a UK factory to manufacture, with UK materials, all sorts of renewable energy technology to replace as many of the fossil fuel sources of energy as possible within the 20 years we had to wait for the nuclear power from Hinkley to become available?

    £20,000,000,000 ( that’s the cash to build only one nuclear power station ) would enable UK PLC to give HUGE tax concessions to individuals and companies who ‘green up.’ We could even donate the green vehicles we about to see all over our roads to companies who reduce their carbon footprints in other ways, so incentivising correctly the best long term behaviours. (The Green get Greener – FOC).

  • My latest blog, on the need for evidence-based campaigning, is at http://climateanswers.info/2015/09/25-september-2015-we-need-evidence-based-campaigning/. In this I suggest a way forward on shale gas campaigning. Reactions welcome.

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