Stick to the data on shale gas, say experts, as climate change takes a back seat

  • 19 Jun 2012, 13:00
  • Robin Webster

Shale - not just a rock.

Shale gas could "turn the world of energy upside-down" and even fundamentally change international geopolitics, suggested Professor Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey (BGS) yesterday, but until the peer-reviewed data is in, we need to reserve judgement.

Yesterday's open lecture on shale gas in the UK at London's Geological Society on shale gas in the UK was a welcome intervention in a debate which has been dominated by overcooked rhetoric on all sides. It was attended by representatives from local councils, water companies, energy companies and numerous concerned citizens, as well as academics and policy wonks, creating the feeling that the debate over UK shale gas may be moving from the sometimes fantasy-realm of the media into the real world.

No shale assessment yet

Just how much shale gas the UK has available has been frequently canvassed in the media and some fairly wild estimates have been made. BGS is busy researching a new estimate of the UK's onshore shale gas reserves for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), to be released at some point in the near future, but - somewhat frustratingly for the event - it's not finished yet and BGS aren't saying when it will be.

The only hint BGS dropped was that it will be releasing a new estimate for shale gas reserves in the north-west of England later on this year. That in itself could be interesting - energy firm Cuadrilla talked up a shale gas find in Lancashire last year, and Professor Stephenson also indicated in his talk that there may be reserves of shale gas in and around the Pennine region.  

Screen Shot 2012-06-19 At 11.43.41

Stephenson emphasised that shale itself is an "incredibly common" rock, and also described the previous BGS assessment of about 150 billion cubic metres of shale gas onshore in the UK as "pretty low - probably too low".

This would seem to confirm rumours that the new number is going to be larger - perhaps much larger than its previous estimate. It's important to note that the BGS is only estimating the shale gas resource present under the UK. More relevant to what shale gas might do to our energy system is an indication of how much of it is economically viable to extract - something the BGS won't be considering.

Solid data and peer review important

Throughout the event numerous speakers emphasised the importance of basing debate on good quality data and peer reviewed research. An active media and political debate has covered UK onshore and offshore shale gas reserves, the potential for hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking' to cause earthquakes, the impact on water reserves, and the potential for 'fugitive emissions' to drive up greenhouse gas emissions. But in many cases, the data and peer-reviewed research on these questions is pretty scarce. One impression from the event is that researchers and the policy community have been caught on the hop, and are scrambling to catch up.

Tony Grayling of the Environment Agency (EA) offered reassurance that the UK is developing a "pretty robust regulatory system" to address local environmental impacts of extracting shale gas. He also said that the EA are also working to produce a "full and detailed environmental assessment" of the impacts of shale gas extraction over the course of this year.

Addressing concerns that fugitive methane emissions from shale gas production might raise the carbon emissions of shale gas over coal, as some research has suggested, Grayling said that the EA is considering using the EU Mining Waste Directive to legislate against accidental release of gas. DECC could also legislate under petroleum licencing regulations which apply to the flaring and venting of gas, he said. The EA has commissioned consultants to review the question of how fugitive emissions could be monitored and controlled, so watch this space.

The climate question

Despite what was a detailed discussion, reference to climate change was more or less absent from the speaker's presentations. Enthusiasts often tout shale gas as a transition fuel - a lower-emissions alternative to coal that can be used while we decarbonise our energy sector.

But when might this transition happen? Grayling commented that he did not think that shale gas would be produced in the UK for "several years at best" - and another speaker admitted that "nothing much is happening" on the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which would be necessary to reduce emissions from gas power plant.  

As some of the wilder claims over shale gas are addressed, it does leave the overarching question unanswered: If the UK develops an active shale gas industry in ten years time and the UK government goes for gas in a big way, how will this be squared with recommendations by the Committee on Climate Change that we reduce the emissions of our power sector to almost nothing by 2030? As the shale gas debate rumbles on, it's going to take more than a peer-reviewed paper to answer than one.

Email Share to Facebook Stumble It
blog comments powered by Disqus