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Inside the cooling tower in power station
TECHNOLOGY
16 September 2015 8:30

Carbon capture ‘essential’ for climate-friendly fracking in UK, says industry-backed report

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

09.16.15
Simon Evans

Simon Evans

16.09.2015 | 8:30am
TechnologyCarbon capture ‘essential’ for climate-friendly fracking in UK, says industry-backed report

The UK cannot exploit its shale gas resources in a climate-friendly way without carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to a new industry-backed report.

While CCS need not be a prerequisite for exploratory drilling, it will be “essential” if fracking develops at scale, says the report on the impact of shale gas on climate change. It also recommends that fracking tax revenues be used to fund renewables research and development.

This is the third report from the industry-funded Task Force on Shale Gas. Carbon Brief measures its approach on fracking and climate change against previous reports.

Leading questions

The report’s 32 pages don’t directly answer the question of whether there is space for UK shale gas to be exploited within the UK’s legally binding  carbon budgets. They also pay scant regard to the global context of the internationally agreed 2C limit for avoiding dangerous warming.

Instead, the report poses a series of rhetorical questions that lead the reader towards its conclusion: that UK shale gas can be part of a transition to a low-carbon future, as long as CCS is developed and fracking revenue is used to boost low-carbon energy research.

For instance, the report asks whether renewables can meet the UK’s entire energy demand in the short term. It says they can’t, yet this conclusion is uncontroversial and most analysts would agree.

Rather than the size of the UK’s carbon budgets, the starting point for the report is to consider the role of gas in the UK energy mix — including in future scenarios based around reducing emissions.

Gas currently supplies around a third of the UK’s energy, it says, pointing to  data from the  Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Home heating and cooking take the largest share, with electricity generation accounting for a minority of total UK gas use.

The report then goes on to consider how much gas will be needed in future. It looks at a range of international scenarios and UK projections from  National Grid, the Energy Technologies Institute and the  UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), only some of which comply with carbon budgets.

The report says they show a need for gas for “several decades”, with “all scenarios expect[ing] gas to play a significant role, globally and in the UK, between now and 2050”.

What does “significant” mean? The  2013 UKERC report says unabated gas without CCS can only act as backup generation after 2030, if the UK is to stay within its carbon budgets. It adds that homes will use “almost no natural gas” by 2050.

Presumably these details explain why the task force thinks CCS will be essential for a climate-compatible UK shale gas industry.

Comparing emissions

Having established its case for future UK gas use, the task force then compare shale emissions to other energy sources. It draws from a 2013 DECC report co-authored by DECC’s former chief scientist Prof David MacKay, which found UK shale gas to have much lower emissions than coal, slightly lower than liquified natural gas (LNG) and higher emissions than conventional gas.

The task force joins Amber Rudd, the energy and climate change secretary, in suggesting that UK shale gas could play a role in displacing coal. This is despite DECC projections that little coal use will remain in 2025 and estimates that UK fracking would need until the mid-2020s to scale up.

Lord Chris Smith, task force chair tells Carbon Brief:

“We place far more emphasis on comparing shale gas with other forms of gas, but felt we should include in the comparison with coal for completeness.”

Indeed, rather than coal, shale gas is most likely to replace imported LNG — with only marginal climate benefits at best. The report has little to say on the amount of space available within UK carbon budgets for gas use to continue.

A clearer picture will start to emerge later this year, with UKERC expected to publish findings on this crucial question. Next April, the Committee on Climate Change will report, too, on whether shale gas exploitation can be compatible with the UK’s climate goals.

The task force also sidesteps two crucial broader climate considerations.

First, the development of a shale gas industry could lock the UK on to a higher carbon path, with investments in long-lasting fossil fuel infrastructure, skills and businesses. Earlier this year, MPs said this made fracking incompatible with the UK’s shrinking carbon budgets.

Second, UK fracking is inextricably linked to the rest of the world, where the climate-friendliness of any additional fossil fuel exploitation is contingent on a global climate deal. Prof MacKay’s report concludes by saying:

“Without global climate policies (of the sort already advocated by the UK) new fossil fuel exploitation is likely to lead to an increase in cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and the risk of climate change.”

Defending his report’s UK-only focus, Smith tells Carbon Brief:

“We have looked at shale gas in the context of UK climate change emissions targets and the pathway to a low carbon economy. Our starting point is the Climate Change Act, which embodies the UK’s commitment to international action – and we consider in detail how best the UK’s commitment and contribution can be made.”

Jim Watson, UKERC director, tells Carbon Brief:

“Overall, the Task Force is right to emphasise the importance of our climate targets. The future role of gas in general (and shale gas in particular) should be compatible with legislated carbon budgets and our long term climate change targets.
“I agree with the Task Force that gas is likely to play a significant role in the short to medium term. However, it is really important to bear in mind that it remains unclear how much of the gas we use in future (if any) will come from shale. Furthermore, a more substantial long-term role for gas will depend heavily on the successful commercialisation of carbon capture and storage technologies.
“As the Task Force notes, the forthcoming review by the Sustainable Gas Institute and previous studies show that UK-based conventional gas and shale gas are likely to have lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than LNG. But there is a lot of uncertainty in the studies available, and for shale, much depends on whether proper well completions are successfully implemented. That will require effective regulation as well as good practice by the industry.”

Responding to the task force’s report, Hannah Martin, Greenpeace UK energy and climate campaigner, said:

“Fracking is not a bridge to a low-carbon future but just another cul-de-sac in our efforts to ditch dangerous fossil fuels. Energy analysts say that if fracking gets started at all in the UK, it still won’t be fully developed for another decade, by which time we should be well on our way to a fossil fuel-free energy future.”

The task force’s previous reports have focused on health impacts and local environmental concerns. The task force says that it “operates independently from its funders and the funders have no influence over its research”.

Its fourth report, due towards the end of the year, will consider the economics of UK shale gas extraction. Apart from winning over a sceptical British public, this will be a key barrier for the industry: if it is uneconomic to frack in the UK, then climate considerations are moot.

Main image: Inside the cooling tower in power station. Credit: © Dawid Lech/Shutterstock.com.

Update 12:20 - We added a comment from Jim Watson.

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  • UK can't exploit its shale gas resources in a climate-friendly way without #CCS, says industry-funded Task Force on Shale Gas report.

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