If you want a cheap, low-carbon power supply then shale gas is the answer according to Lord MacGregor, chairman of the House of Lords economic affairs committee. His committee has published a report saying the UK should get fracking – right away.
But MacGregor’s assertion that domestic shale gas is clean and green depends on the way fracking is carried out in the UK, on what the gas replaces and on how long we continue to use it for.
In an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph MacGregor argues:
“Existing sources of renewable energy are too expensive and intermittent to meet all our energy needs; new nuclear will take time to develop. If we are to continue our progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, a transition fuel is required to lessen our current dependence on coal. Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, has to be the answer – and gas from domestic shale would produce fewer emissions than imported liquefied natural gas.”
The UK really is still dependent on coal. It provided 40.7 per cent of electricity supplied in 2013. Renewables remain more expensive than unabated coal or gas, though onshore wind is cheaper than nuclear. And new nuclear capacity is not expected before 2023 at the earliest.
Fugitives and super-emitters
Energy from shale gas has a similar carbon footprint to conventional gas power according to a report from David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Emissions would be lower than imported liquified natural gas (LNG) too. That’s as long as methane leaks – so-called fugitive emissions – are kept to a minimum.
Academics are still arguing over how large fugitive emissions really are. Recent evidence suggests a handful of super-emitting wells could be releasing thousands of times more fugitive methane than other sites.
DECC and the UK shale gas industry are confident that tighter regulations in the UK will prevent super-emitters here. The Lords’ report sensibly recommends that government and industry should jointly monitor fugitive methane as the industry develops so we should find out if this confidence is well-founded. DECC committed itself to at least some methane monitoring in its recent response to MacKay’s recommendations.
Lock-in, golden ages and gilded cages
The Lords’ report dismisses fears of carbon lock-in if shale gas exploitation goes ahead and more gas-fired power stations are built. The lifetime of shale wells is short, it says, while gas plants are so cheap to build that they pay back the investment quickly. They have no need to operate for decades.
So climate scientists need not worry about a new golden age for gas turning into a gilded cage that locks us into a high-carbon future, the report argues.
In any case, the Lords say, the UK will be using “substantial quantities” of gas for decades. If the UK doesn’t exploit its own shale gas reserves it’ll only end up importing someone else’s.
The Lords also give short shrift to concerns that investment in shale gas could displace renewables. Windfarms and the like receive government subsidies, they point out, so shale gas is unlikely to prevent renewables investment coming forward.
A question mark remains over longer term support for renewables, however. The budget for subsidies is fixed only as far as 2020. Meanwhile the government has an enthusiastic gas strategy and refused to set a 2030 target for power sector decarbonisation.
So will a dash for shale gas be a good thing for UK carbon targets? Is it even compatible with them?
The Lords’ report says fracking could make a positive contribution to meeting the targets if the gas produced replaces imported, higher-carbon LNG. It says the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) backs its case, having recently “acknowledged a continuing role for gas”.
It quotes the CCC saying:
“well regulated production of shale gas could have economic benefits to the UK, in a manner consistent with our emissions targets, while reducing our dependence on imported gas.”
But the Lords’ report fails to include the CCC’s next sentence:
“However, a dash for gas in the power sector is not necessary to realise any potential benefits [for the economy and climate], nor is it desirable given the importance of power sector decarbonisation.”
The CCC has a long-standing opposition to growth in the gas sector. In 2012 it told the government unabated gas cannot continue into the 2030s if the UK is to meet its carbon targets. Any remaining after that time would need carbon capture and storage systems to trap and lock away their carbon dioxide emissions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had a similar message when it backed use of gas as a bridge fuel on the road to a low-carbon power sector. It said that unabated gas use should peak and fall below current levels by 2050.
So yes, Lord MacGregor, shale gas can help the UK towards its carbon targets. If fugitive emissions are avoided. If shale displaces imported LNG or coal rather than renewables. And if gas power stations in the 2030s and beyond fit carbon capture and storage. That’s a lot of ifs.