Shale gas no solution to carbon emissions
New Scientist On-line (11-01-12) led a story following the British Geological Survey launch of new web pages and videos about shale gas with the byline: “Frack away – there's no reason not too – two of the main objections to fracking have been blown out of proportion”.
In fairness to the BGS they make the point that shale gas is an important energy resource and stress that if it's to be used it's use should be combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – possibly a vain hope. CCS is still a largely hypothetical technology and it's reckoned that implementing it could represent 40% of the energy costs of thermal power. By chance, the government withdrew a £1 billion fund to develop CCS the day before the first ever sizeable CCS pilot was opened at Ferrybridge Power Station in Yorkshire – hardly a vote of confidence in the technology.
New Scientist really deserve a slap on the wrist for introducing an important technical study in such a flippant way, but it gives a great opportunity to set out the real concerns about shale gas exploitation. The principle objections to fracking are not the risk of earthquakes or the risk of water contamination but the long term impact of low cost gas on carbon emissions and investments in low carbon technology.
Coincidently the Tyndall Climate Change Research unit in Manchester published a 133 page appraisal of shale gas on the same day as the NS piece: “Shale Gas: an updated assessment of environmental and climate change impacts”. It makes the real issue very clear. Only 20% of potential shale gas reserves in the UK would use 15% of the UK's carbon budget up to 2050. Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change, who wrote the report, believes shale gas should be left in the ground saying;
"In an energy hungry world any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives."
Cheap gas creates a “double whammy”. It certainly produces less carbon than coal but it still but still has a big impact on carbon emissions. What's more, fossil fuels operate with a covert subsidy, the cost of the pollution they create is socialised, distorting the energy market. In turn, the availability of cheap gas tends to discourage investment in genuine low carbon options by lowering energy costs to a point where renewables can't compete. The Tyndall Centre Report argues that a £32 billion investment in shale gas could potentially displace 12 GW of offshore or 21GW of onshore capacity – raising the prospect of the UK not meeting it's renewables obligations.
Quite apart from impacts on emissions and treaty obligations there are other economic impacts of staking future energy strategies on gas. The IEA's “World Energy Outlook 2011” launched in November 2011 warns of the cost of locking the country into a high carbon economy long term.
“The long lifetime of capital stock in the power sector means that the sector accounts for half the emissions lock-in to 2035. If action were to be delayed until 2015 around 45% of the fossil fuel capacity installed by then would have to be retired early or refurbished by 2035. Delaying action (on decarbonisation) is a false economy. For every $1 dollar of investment in the power sector avoided before 2020 an additional $4-30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for higher emissions.”
The real danger of shale gas is this process of locking our energy infrastructure into fossil fuels long into the future. With a struggling economy the debate about energy is moving away from the imperative to cut carbon and towards the need to deliver it cheaply. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate impacts we really don't need headlines like "Frack away – there's no reason not too" - especially from New Scientist.