Shale gas needs CCS and emissions guarantee, says Environment Agency boss
- 08 May 2012, 14:00
- Robin Webster and Chris Peters
Lord Smith gave qualified support this morning for shale gas
extraction - prompting headlines along
the lines of "Environment Agency
boss backs fracking". His comments on the
Today Programme however came complete with important
Shale gas would only fit into our energy future if it's possible
to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to capture
emissions from burning it, he said. He also warned that "fugitive
emissions" of methane from the 'fracking' process used to gas from
shale need to be assessed and dealt with.
These comments might have caused some raised eyebrows in the
policy world, because at the moment amidst a somewhat unclear line
on shale gas from government, neither of these issues is addressed
CCS for gas - a pipe dream?
"If we end up going for a dash for gas
in a few years' time, which I suspect we may do anyway, because
renewables and nuclear won't be sufficient to enable us to keep all
the lights on...we have to have carbon capture and storage for
gas-fired power stations to capture the carbon rather than just
releasing it into the atmosphere"
At the moment, government policy does not require CCS for the
burning of gas. DECC announced in
March that power plant constructed now will be subject to an
emissions performance standard of 450g/kWh - the level of pollution
that plant will be able to emit. This means that new coal plant
will have to fit CCS, but gas power plant won't.
When the announcement was made, the current Chair of the Climate
Change Committee Adair Turner
wrote to Ed Davey expressing concern about the impacts of this
policy on our greenhouse gas emissions.
But Smith's view that CCS needs to be fitted to gas power plant
is pretty far away from the current political reality. The
Secretary General of the World Energy Council (WEC) argued at the
Economist Energy Summit last week that confidence in CCS is waning on a global
level. CCS remains unproven at commercial scale, and there are
concerns about how much it will make burning fossil fuels cost,
should it ever be deployed at scale.
In the UK, the government has now
launched its second £1bn competition in five years to find a
company that can come up with a workable CCS scheme - six months
after the first contest
collapsed. On the other hand, and more optimistically,
in Norway the world's largest facility to develop carbon
capture and storage has just been opened.
In his other big caveat, Lord Smith argued that shale gas
"...has to be drawn out of the ground effectively and safely" and
"worrying about whether the methane is
captured rather than discharged to the air".
This is an important point. Although shale gas is often touted
as a relatively low-emissions fossil fuel, environmentalists (for
Tony Juniper) have argued that shale gas is "comparable to
coal" as a result of these "fugitive emissions" of methane from the
In doing so, they cite a 2011
study by Cornell University. The study is controversial
- it has been criticised
by other researchers. But this may not be the end of the story -
the Cornell authors have disagreed
with the criticisms of their paper - and the
early bits of hard data on methane emissions from the process
appear to agree with the Cornell study.
So it's fair to say the jury's still out on emissions from shale
gas - and other research groups including the Manchester Tyndall
Centre have pointed to the lack of conclusive research or
measurements on this question.
The energy benefits to the US from the rapid expansion into
shale gas have turned many heads. But if shale gas is going to
be rolled out in this country as a significant fuel source, without
busting our emissions targets, the Environment Agency head has
identified two fairly thorny issues that need to be tackled