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A high estimate for shale gas won’t solve our climate change woes

  • 28 May 2012, 11:30
  • Robin Webster

The UK's reserves of shale gas are back on the agenda, following news that the British Geological Society is due to make an announcement on shale gas next month. But if it does turn out that we have access to larger reserves that previously estimated, what would that mean for climate change? Recent discussions at the Shale Gas Environment Summit don't give us much grounds for optimism.

Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey accused the right of the Tory party on Friday of trying in undermine investment in renewables by "making out that the UK could rely on shale gas instead". Davey cited industry estimates that  "if we exploited all the shale gas that is there" it could provide five to ten percent of UK energy needs - not quite the " 100 years of shale gas" claimed in some quarters.

A new estimate by the British Geological Society (BGS) could shortly settle this argument. The BGS has announced that it will be holding a public briefing on shale gas reserves in June. We don't know for sure whether it will give more results from its investigation into the amount of shale gas the UK has onshore, but it seems likely. The BGS' previous estimate of 144 billion cubic metres of shale gas - or about 1.5 years worth of gas demand at current prices - was released before Cuadrilla claimed reserves in the North of England of 6,000 cubic metres, although even Cuadrilla admit that  only a small percent could be recoverable.

If we do have significant reserves of shale gas in the UK, what will it mean for our greenhouse gas emissions? The answer to that question is complex. Natural gas produces about half the emissions of coal when burnt, so a switch to shale gas is often presented as a way to cut carbon emissions. In this vein, there was quite a lot of talk at the conference about the potential for shale gas to act as a 'bridging fuel', providing energy security before the promised shift to greener energy really kicks in.

But there are some difficulties. For one thing, assuming that there is a shale gas revolution in this country, when will it really get going? There are considerable barriers to its expansion in Europe that didn't apply in the States, including a denser population and a different approach to property rights.

At the conference, Peter Hughes of Ricardo Strategic Consulting admitted the pace of development in Europe is likely to be "leisurely" and that Europe was unlikely to see "material shale gas production" before the 2020s. Paul Ekins of UCL argued that there is a "huge range of views" on how quickly European shale gas production can be ramped up.

The Climate Change Committee has recommended that the UK needs to decarbonise its electricity system, reducing the proportion of energy we get from fossil fuels dramatically by 2030. If the European shale gas industry doesn't really get going until the 2020s, that seems to leave a relatively narrow window for shale to act as a transition fuel.

Secondly, carbon capture and storage (CCS). The chief executive of the Climate Change Committee David Kennedy told the conference on Wednesday: "You can't decarbonise using unabated gas" - in other words we need gas power stations to be fitted with CCS technology. Kennedy's comments echo those of Environment Agency boss, Lord Smith, who told the Today Programme a couple of weeks ago:

"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".

There's a problem, however - no-one has yet been able to demonstrate CCS technology on a commercial scale in the UK. The Climate Change Committee, the body that advises the government on decarbonising the UK economy, has already expressed its concern that current government policy - which allows power stations constructed now to keep burning gas without CCS until 2045 - could threaten our ability to meet our climate change targets.

The conference also discussed the still-unresolved question of whether shale gas actually has higher emissions than conventional gas. A 2011 study by Cornell University claimed that due to so-called fugitive emissions - the accidental release of methane into the atmosphere during the fracking process - shale gas could be more environmentally polluting than coal. The paper has been extremely controversial, but there is an active debate continuing on this issue, and a real lack of hard data.

Kennedy was clear that the Climate Change Committee's modelling, due to be released in its next annual report, shows that

"Early power sector decarbonisation is key to achieving 2050 target. Even in a cheap shale gas world."

What does this all mean? In summary, it appears that shale gas - at least from the UK - will not be available as a transition fuel over the next decade or so. Once it is available it looks doubtful whether it will be useable. If we really care about hitting our climate change targets, that is. Kennedy criticised misleading coverage of the impact of green power on energy bills by the media, arguing that modelling by the Climate Change Committee shows that there is "no rationale, from an economic perspective, for a second dash for gas" and "decarbonisation is economically sensible".

There was a lot of discussion at the conference about local and national campaigns against fracking, the extraction process for shale gas. One speaker yesterday even announced that there has been "media hysteria" around the issue and that fracking needs "rebranding". The pressure on the industry on climate changes issues, in contrast, is largely created not by local protests or negative media coverage, but by government policy. And that pressure is not very significant - at the moment, government policy in this country will allow gas power stations to keep burning, without carbon capture and storage, for the next three decades.

So if the estimates are high, and the economics work, the nascent shale gas industry may have some basis for its optimism about the future. What that would mean for our climate change targets remains to be seen, but it isn't looking great.

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