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
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
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
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.