We need proper research into the climate impacts of shale gas, says Royal Society, as the Committee on Climate Change warns over emissions from gas

  • 29 Jun 2012, 15:43
  • Robin Webster

Two reports published today about UK gas policy have sparked headlines - and simultaneously highlighted a disjoint in UK energy policy.

Royal Society: fracking ok...

The first, a joint effort by the Royal Society (RS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, is a review of the scientific and engineering evidence associated with fracking - the process by which shale gas is extracted - and whether those risks can be effectively managed in the UK. It was undertaken at the behest of the government's chief scientific advisor John Beddington.

In summary, the report concludes that the "health, safety and environmental risks" of fracking "can be managed effectively". The risks of underground fractures causing contamination of water supplies is identified as "very low"; seismic risks are "low" and the demands for water "can be managed sustainably".

This has prompted some enthusiastic headlines: " Fracking should go ahead in Britain, report says" (Telegraph), "Fracking safe with strong regulation" (BBC), " Fracking could get UK approval" (Independent).

...but what about climate change?

But just as the Environment Agency's head Lord Smith said fracking could go ahead in the UK - but only with carbon capture and storage (CCS) - back in May, there is a caveat to the RS report. In this case the report doesn't address how shale gas could affect climate change.

The failure to address climate risk sparked criticism on Twitter this morning from the former director of the Royal Society's Science Policy Centre, James Wilsdon. He argues that by simply suggesting more research on shale gas's climate impacts it's "ducking all the tricky questions", calling it "the worst kind of narrow, risk-dominated technical framing of a complex science policy question". He adds:

"...I'm not saying the report doesn't answer some useful questions; merely that if you bring the full … authority of UK's national academies to bear on a tricky issue, you should frame it properly & acknowledge full set of issues."

The RS report mentions the wider implications of burning shale gas, but only to acknowledge the limitations of the report. It says:

"This report has analysed the technical aspects of the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas extraction to inform decision making. Neither risks associated with the subsequent use of shale gas nor climate risks have been analysed."

It recommends further research into the climate risks associated with the extraction and use of shale gas, and that decision makers would also benefit from research into public acceptance of all the environmental and climate risks associated with fracking.

Fugitive emissions - methane leakage from the fracking process - could mean that emissions from shale gas are worse than those from coal, according to some critics, but the data remains inconclusive at the moment. Lord Smith at the Environment Agency has said CCS technology will be necessary to mitigate carbon emissions from burning shale gas. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency is doing an in-depth study of fugitive emissions.

Perhaps the more important question is whether an expansion of shale gas has the potential to drive up emissions by reducing investment in renewable power, as Leo Hickman wrote this morning for the Guardian.

Committee on Climate Change - no dash for gas

Coincidentally, another report arrived on the government's doormat this morning - the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)'s latest annual progress report on how well efforts are proceeding to meet the emissions reductions targets enshrined in the UK Climate Change Act.

The CCC's analysis concludes that the government's current efforts to cut emissions have to be quadrupled. It recommends that if the government is to meet its carbon reduction targets it needs to rule out an all-out push for more gas power capacity. In a repeat of previous statements, the committee says the government needs to set a clear carbon intensity target - the amount of carbon dioxide that is allowed to be emitted per unit of power - to 50 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour by 2030 for the power sector. This would rule out nearly all power from gas plant unless they were fitted with CCS.

Essentially, the CCC is repeating its recommendation that the UK needs to reduce its power sector emissions to almost nothing by 2030. The committee first said this back in 2008. But the government's draft energy bill, released in May, contains no such target. This leaves open the possibility of a significant expansion in gas production without CCS technology.

Climate change absent

As Leo Hickman also points out, climate change is almost entirely absent from the media debate on shale gas. It is widely recognised that we will need to produce some energy from gas in order back up renewable power, but as both the committee and Lord Smith have emphasised, CCS technology would be needed to keep emissions down. With CCS currently struggling to get off the ground, and a UK shale gas industry seemingly knocking on the door, the CCC's concerns that a dash for gas could be imminent look pretty justified.

These two reports do reveal that there's a significant disjoint between, on the one hand, hype and bombast around shale, and on the other, the reality of the government's commitment to tackle climate change.

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