All hail our fracking future! Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to an IGas site in Gainsborough on 13th January 2014, flanked by company officials. Photo: Number 10 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Fracking will only dig our fossil fuel addiction deeper
16th September 2015
A new report on fracking and climate change from the Task Force on Shale gas presents a rosy picture of the fuel's role as a climate-friendly 'bridge' to a renewable energy future, writes Oliver Tickell. But the truth is the precise opposite - it's a climate disaster that will only delay the arrival of clean energy.
Developing shale gas is not complementary to renewables, nor will it ease the transition to renewables. It is, in the realpolitik of these dark times, what the government is determined to do instead of renewables.
The Task Force on Shale Gas has today published its report on fracking and climate change. Not surprisingly, it concludes that drilling for shale gas in the UK is a good thing for the climate.
Or rather, in the words of chairman Chris Smith:
"Our conclusion from all the evidence we've seen is clear. The UK will only meet its binding climate commitments by moving in the long term to renewable and low carbon energy sources.
"Nonetheless, from the evidence it is apparent that renewables cannot meet the UK's short term energy needs. Gas must play a role over the medium term. The relative climate impact of shale gas is similar to that of conventional gas and less than that of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is also much better than coal. Gas will be needed for several decades to come."
This would seem to give the government the 'climate clearance' it's surely looking for to justify going ahead with the 'shale gas revolution' it's so enthusiastic about.
Except for a few small details ... like fugitive methane
Last night I put a few questions to the Task Force. First, I asked, "does the report address the question of fugitive methane emissions from fracking based on US (or other) experience?"
This is a key question as very high fugitive methane emissions from both shale gas and shale oil wells have taken place in the US. As a result some studies produce the surprising result that the warming impact of gas is actually a lot worse than that of coal.
Lord Smith himself provided the answer: "Our third report directly references the recommendation we made in our second report, namely that the process of 'green completions' - whereby fugitive emissions are minimised on site - should be mandatory for production shale wells. We referenced that these have been mandated in the US."
Now this an admirable statement of good intentions, but how feasible is it to achieve the very low emissions that are sought? Note that because methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, if any more than 3.2% of the fracked gas escapes during its journey from deep underground to combustion chamber, gas is a dirtier a fuel than coal.
It has been estimated that, in fact, as much as 9% of fracked gas typically escapes during the production process. At that level, to use fracked gas in power stations is actually about three times more polluting in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
OK, so there are obviously engineering solutions that can reduce fugitive methane emissions. But they will also add to cost. And there's a point at which in becomes unfeasible to reduce leakage any further without disproportionate expenditure, or the whole exercise becomes uneconomic.
And let's face it - 3.2% is a low level of leakage considering the operating conditions of fracking wells and the many opportunities for gas to make its escape. One percent here, half a percent there ... it doesn't take a lot.
And what about the 'unburnable carbon'?
Then there is the even thornier question of 'unburnable carbon'. That is, the carbon that, in order for global warming to be constrained to no more than the (we hope) 'safe' level of 2C, cannot be released to the atmosphere.
Currently energy companies have five times more carbon in their fossil fuel reserves than the world can burn, and stay within that 2C limit. The figures were set out last January in the scientific journal Nature, showing that in total, a third of global oil reserves, half of the world's gas and over 80% of its coal reserves should be left untouched for the next 35 years.
Got that? Half of the world's gas should remain untouched. And that's the gas we know is there. Note that UK shale gas does not come into that category: we have a very poor idea of how much shale gas the UK has, or how much is exploitable, so it does not even count as a 'reserve'.
Now which half of the world's gas should be exploited? And which left underground? A rational discussion would surely conclude that it's the cleanest, cheapest gas with the lowest energy overhead and the lowest leakage rates that should be extracted, and the dirtiest, highest energy overhead gas we should leave alone. Which is effectively saying, no to fracking.
Another way of looking at it: the world's gas producing countries and companies will need to leave half their gas underground as is. If the UK starts producing its own dirty, expensive shale gas (on top of our relatively clean North Sea gas) then we have to persuade someone else to leave even more of their clean, cheap gas underground.
Enough background. My question was: "does the report put the UK's shale gas resources in the context of the existing known gas resource and how much of this is 'burnable' to avoid > 2C warming?"
Lord Smith's answer was admirably brief and clear: "No we haven't."
And what about renewables? And energy efficiency?
The other key point is that Lord Smith himself is a great supporter of renewables. He says so himself: "The UK will only meet its binding climate commitments by moving in the long term to renewable and low carbon energy sources."
And the role he sees for shale gas is a short term one, to last for only two decades at most while renewables are being rolled out on a big enough scale to form the foundation of our sustainable energy future.
Which is great! Except it's not happening. Indeed the very reverse is happening. The government has launched an unprecedented attack on the entire renewable energy sector, recklessly withdrawing support from wind and solar power, refusing planning permission for offshore wind farms, tightening planning rules for onshore wind, and undermining investor confidence in renewables for many years to come.
So this idea that gas is stopgap while we get our act together on renewables is pure fiction. Renewables are no longer happening. Sure, there's a few projects in the pipeline to build out, but then finito. The end. No more. At least until a new government takes over with new policies. Perhaps in 2020. Perhaps not.
So developing shale gas is not complementary to renewables, nor will it ease the transition to renewables. It is, in the realpolitik of these dark times, what the government is determined to do instead of renewables.
Fracking the UK is no solution whatsoever to global warming. It will, on the contrary, only dig us in even deeper to our fossil fuel addiction.
The report: 'Assessing the Impact of Shale Gas on Climate Change' is published today by the Task Force on Shale Gas.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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