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