Analysis

Behind the headlines: Fracking and water contamination

  • 16 Sep 2014, 15:45
  • Simon Evans

Fracking rally | Shutterstock

There are fears that hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas could be behind water contamination in the US. These fears have been a touchstone of anti-fracking protests around the world.

New research that's attracted a lot of media interest today seems to put paid to those concerns, finding faulty well casings are to blame instead.

But depending on which headline you read, you might have come away with a different impression. So what's really going on?

Contradictory coverage

The new study looked at drinking water samples from 133 wells in the Marcellus and Barnett shale areas of the US. The researchers wanted to know why these wells contained higher than usual levels of hydrocarbons like methane. Was the contamination caused by nearby fracking or was it naturally present in the water? 

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Are we about to pay for high-carbon power plants we don’t need?

  • 12 Sep 2014, 15:50
  • Simon Evans

Electric meter dials | Shutterstock

The UK's households could end up paying for expensive new power stations which are not actually needed, according to a committee of MPs.

They are concerned about the government's approach to the UK's shrinking electricity supplies. They say its capacity market plans risk locking in unnecessary high-carbon generation, potentially adding £359 million to energy bills and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

We've delved into the government's historical electricity data to show how the UK's electricity use has changed, why the government thinks a capacity market is needed and why the MPs say it's got things wrong.

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If energy efficiency is so great, why aren’t we doing more of it?

  • 09 Sep 2014, 16:30
  • Simon Evans

Facade insulation | Shutterstock

Forever the Cinderella of climate and energy policy, two reports published this week say we should remember to invite energy efficiency to the ball.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says investing in efficiency can boost growth, jobs, health, government budgets, industrial productivity - and those are just the benefits backed by robust analysis. Meanwhile left-leaning thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says efficiency could reduce EU reliance on Russian gas.

It's an impressive list of benefits. So what's going wrong?

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Scottish Independence: How would we divide up our oil, wind and gas?

  • 08 Sep 2014, 16:30
  • Simon Evans

Hadrian's wall | Shutterstock

The build up to the 18 September Scottish independence referendum has now officially reached fever pitch. With polling suggesting a vote for independence is a real possibility, the question of how the union might be divided has taken on a new significance.

Scotland and the rest of the UK are closely interdependent for energy infrastructure and fossil fuel resource. So how would the UK divide up its oil, wind and gas resources with an independent Scotland, and what would it mean for each of the new nations' efforts to decarbonise?

North Sea oil and gas

The largest energy prize in economic terms is North Sea oil and gas. Some 40 billion barrels have been extracted so far and anything from 2 to 24 billion barrels remain, depending who you ask.

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Global carbon intensity is falling - but not quickly enough to avoid worst impacts of climate change

  • 08 Sep 2014, 14:55
  • Mat Hope

Chimneys | Shutterstock

World leaders are set to meet in New York in two weeks time to discuss how best to address global climate change. High on the agenda will be working out how to wean countries off cheap fossil fuels while keeping their economies afloat.

A new  report by consultancy PwC shows that for all the  politicians' promises , the global economy is still far from being "green". Current efforts to incentivise cleaner economic growth are falling short of those needed to avoid dangerous global warming, it says.

Emissions 'cuts'

Global carbon intensity - annual emissions divided by GDP - has  fallen by 1.2 per cent, the report shows. But that somewhat masks what's actually happening to global emissions.

Carbon intensity is a measure of how efficiently countries use their polluting energy resources, such as coal, oil and gas.

So long as a country's energy sector emissions grow at a slower rate than its GDP, the carbon intensity of its economy falls. But although some countries are ramping up renewables, many still rely on burning large amounts of fossil fuels to drive economic growth.

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Why undersea fracking is unlikely to give Scotland a £600 billion windfall

  • 05 Sep 2014, 13:30
  • Mat Hope

Scotland flag waving | Shutterstock

As Scotland prepares to decide whether to vote 'yes' for independence, the North Sea oil and gas industry's economic prospects have become something of a political football.

Today, a new report backed by the 'Yes' campaign claims the industry's taxes could be worth over £600 billion. But other experts have been quick to cast doubt on the findings.

Geologists think there's still plenty of oil and gas under the North Sea. The problem is that companies have extracted most of the easy-to-reach resources. Uncertainty around the fate of the remaining oil and gas has created space for speculation over how much the industry is worth.

That's where today's  report from consultancy N-56, founded by  a Yes campaign board member, fits in. It claims there could be around 45 billion barrels of oil and gas remaining - almost double previous estimates - worth £665 billion in tax receipts.

Conventional oil and gas

The North Sea's oil and gas reserves are becoming depleted, with companies extracting fewer and fewer barrels each year. Experts believe the industry could persist for  a few more decades, but only if companies are willing to explore hard to reach spots.

Whether they will - or even can - access such resources is very open to debate, however.

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The fossil fuel alternative that comes from food poisoning

  • 04 Sep 2014, 14:30
  • Simon Evans

E. coli | Shutterstock

Scientists at London's Imperial College have tricked E. coli bacteria into making renewable propane that could replace the petrol in your fuel tank. Their work has caught the imagination of the nation, receiving wide press coverage, and it's not hard to see why.

E. coli bacteria are commonly found in the human gut, with some strains associated with food poisoning. It may sound unpleasant, but if it were possible to conjure carbon-neutral gas using clever biochemistry, what's not to like?

Well, allow us to explain...

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Is there enough water to frack?

  • 03 Sep 2014, 12:40
  • Mat Hope

Derrick rig: Shutterstock

There are many reasons policymakers across the world have been casting envious glances at the US's shale gas boom: from falling energy prices to curbing emissions. But a range of geological, economic, and social obstacles have made it  tricky to replicate elsewhere.

A new  report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) thinktank highlights another: water availability.

Getting shale gas or oil out of the ground can be very water intensive. Knon as fracking, it involves shooting large amounts of water and chemicals into the shale rock to create fractures through which the resources can be pumped. The  International Energy Agency estimates it could require anywhere between a few thousand to 20 million litres of water per well.

That's a problem, the WRI says, as many of the countries with the largest shale resources don't have much water to spare.

Water availability

For the first time, the WRI has mapped global water availability alongside the location of the world's shale resources. It finds that 38 per cent of the countries thought to have the largest shale resources also have strained water supplies.

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Analysis: China's big carbon market experiment

  • 02 Sep 2014, 17:05
  • Mat Hope

Macau: Shutterstock

China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Historically, it has been reluctant to cut emissions, fearing that doing so could impede its economic growth. But there are signs that position is shifting.

Late last year, the government  banned the building of new coal power plants in particular areas due to air pollution concerns. Now it has announced it will seek to implement  a national carbon market by 2016.

The announcement wasn't much of a surprise. Since 2011, China has been developing seven pilot carbon markets with the aim of one day creating a national scheme. The National Development and Reform Commission - the department responsible for the schemes - has long said it wants to include plans for a national market in  China's next five year plan.

But could a carbon market form the backbone of China's response to climate change?

Rationale

China has  pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy - the level of greenhouse gas emitted for each Yuan of GDP generated - by 40 to 45 per cent. That means its economy is destined to become more efficient, but doesn't guarantee an overall emissions cut.

The government is putting  a range of policies in place to help hit that goal. Its now clear a carbon market is also part of the plan.

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Why we’re going to be breaking renewable records for the foreseeable future, and what that means

  • 28 Aug 2014, 13:00
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 William Kunz

UK wind power shattered records last week, spinning out 22 per cent of electricity demand for a day. One in five of our morning cups of tea was renewably-powered, if you like.

Sound familiar? It should, because renewables keep  breaking  records. In 2013 records were smashed. The same was true in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. We've been building a lot of windfarms, solar panels and biomass conversions recently.

The rest of the world has too but it's been building huge numbers of fossil-fired power plants at the same time. But even though renewable electricity output around the world will continue to break records through to 2020, we'll still only get a quarter of our power from renewables.

 

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