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Shale gas for breakfast

  • 25 Jan 2012, 09:00
  • Robin Webster

With energy issues high on both the national and international agenda, it was energy policy for breakfast yesterday as the BBC's Today programme turned its attention to oil, coal, gas and renewable power.

Shortly after 7am, Today discussed the potential impact of sanctions in Iran on international oil supply - including the implications for "the price we pay at the petrol pump". This was followed by a segment reporting on "how the discovery of shale gas is changing the debate around energy and climate change" - a pretty good, clear explanation of some the issues that shale gas presents, as a gas glut takes over the US.

Using the case study of what has already happened in the States, science correspondent Tom Feilden posited that

"the discovery of vast reserves of shale gas, or more accurately the development of new drilling technologies to have at a stroke rewritten the established rules and politics of energy supply"

Oxford University professor and shale gas advocate Dieter Helm was on hand with a simple explanation - as fossil fuel prices have risen, we've got better at getting harder-to-extract fossil fuels out of the ground. He argued that the era of fossil fuels is not, as some have thought, coming to an end but rather - "we're awash with the stuff" - "the earth's crust is riddled with fossil fuels" and

"stunning changes in our fossil fuel markets...create a world in which we've got plenty to fry the planet several times over"

So will shale gas be "frying the planet several times over"? The point was picked up later in the programme in a debate between climate skeptic Lord Lawson and  and ex-chair of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper.

All participants in the debate (including presenter James Naughtie) agreed that the prospect of cheaper gas has, to use Juniper's words "changed the debate very dramatically" - at least in the States, and potentially in the longer term, nearer to home as well. Worth noting - this now seems to have become received wisdom, and marks a shift in tone on shale gas from the past year or so. Juniper however argued that

"...[shale gas] has to be done in a way that doesn't displace investment in renewables, it needs to be done in a way which displaces dirtier fossil fuels, namely coal, and also fitted with effective carbon capture and storage technology."

As we discussed in more detail yesterday, the issue of what shale gas 'displaces' is key. Gas produces about half of the greenhouse emissions of coal. So if we build gas plants instead of coal plants, emissions probably go down. But gas has much higher emissions than renewables or nuclear, so if we build gas plants instead of low-carbon renewables (or nuclear plants), emissions probably go up. (This is a bit crude and the resulting mixes of energy sources are likely to be more complex, but you get the idea.)

Lord Lawson was sanguine about the prospect of gas replacing renewables, describing the prospect of cheap gas as "one piece of unequivocal good news". Challenged with the argument that shale gas could drive emissions up rather than down, he responded with his well-worn talking points: renewables are "hopelessly uneconomic", "in fact there has no been no global warming whatever so far this century" and finally, that

"I mean, we can make a bridge between Tony Juniper and me because of course, to the extent that you are concerned about carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, the gas, burning gas, is much less carbon intensive, about half as carbon intensive as burning coal."

Of course, this avoids the issue of what shale gas is displacing, but then, if you think that climate change has stopped, you're probably not that worried about how much of our energy comes from coal and gas. (We've covered the dubious argument that "global warming has stopped" in more detail here).

On thing is clear. Even if the prospects for shale gas in the UK and Europe aren't as bright as they currently are in the US, as was suggested at an event we covered last week, unconventional gas, extracted or imported, is rising up the energy agenda.

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