Lord Smith gave qualified support this morning for shale gas extraction – prompting headlines along the lines of “Environment Agency boss backs fracking“. His comments on the Today Programme however came complete with important caveats.
Shale gas would only fit into our energy future if it’s possible to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to capture emissions from burning it, he said. He also warned that “fugitive emissions” of methane from the ‘fracking’ process used to gas from shale need to be assessed and dealt with.
These comments might have caused some raised eyebrows in the policy world, because at the moment amidst a somewhat unclear line on shale gas from government, neither of these issues is addressed by policies.
CCS for gas – a pipe dream?
“If we end up going for a dash for gas in a few years’ time, which I suspect we may do anyway, because renewables and nuclear won’t be sufficient to enable us to keep all the lights on…we have to have carbon capture and storage for gas-fired power stations to capture the carbon rather than just releasing it into the atmosphere”
At the moment, government policy does not require CCS for the burning of gas. DECC announced in March that power plant constructed now will be subject to an emissions performance standard of 450g/kWh – the level of pollution that plant will be able to emit. This means that new coal plant will have to fit CCS, but gas power plant won’t.
When the announcement was made, the current Chair of the Climate Change Committee Adair Turner wrote to Ed Davey expressing concern about the impacts of this policy on our greenhouse gas emissions.
But Smith’s view that CCS needs to be fitted to gas power plant is pretty far away from the current political reality. The Secretary General of the World Energy Council (WEC) argued at the Economist Energy Summit last week that confidence in CCS is waning on a global level. CCS remains unproven at commercial scale, and there are concerns about how much it will make burning fossil fuels cost, should it ever be deployed at scale.
In the UK, the government has now launched its second Â£1bn competition in five years to find a company that can come up with a workable CCS scheme – six months after the first contest collapsed. On the other hand, and more optimistically, in Norway the world’s largest facility to develop carbon capture and storage has just been opened.
In his other big caveat, Lord Smith argued that shale gas “…has to be drawn out of the ground effectively and safely” and that means
“worrying about whether the methane is captured rather than discharged to the air”.
This is an important point. Although shale gas is often touted as a relatively low-emissions fossil fuel, environmentalists (for example Tony Juniper) have argued that shale gas is “comparable to coal” as a result of these “fugitive emissions” of methane from the fracking process.
In doing so, they cite a 2011 study by Cornell University. The study is controversial – it has been criticised by other researchers. But this may not be the end of the story – the Cornell authors have disagreed with the criticisms of their paper – and the early bits of hard data on methane emissions from the process appear to agree with the Cornell study.
So it’s fair to say the jury’s still out on emissions from shale gas – and other research groups including the Manchester Tyndall Centre have pointed to the lack of conclusive research or measurements on this question.
The energy benefits to the US from the rapid expansion into shale gas have turned many heads. But if shale gas is going to be rolled out in this country as a significant fuel source, without busting our emissions targets, the Environment Agency head has identified two fairly thorny issues that need to be tackled first.