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Averil Macdonald of UK Onshore Oil and Gas
OIL AND GAS
6 July 2016 16:50

The Carbon Brief Interview: Averil Macdonald

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

07.06.16
Simon Evans

Simon Evans

06.07.2016 | 4:50pm
Oil and gasThe Carbon Brief Interview: Averil Macdonald

In October 2015, Prof Averil Macdonald was appointed chair of industry group UK Onshore Oil and Gas. Macdonald is emeritus professor of science engagement at the University of Reading.

In July 2015, Macdonald was awarded an OBE for services to women in science and public engagement with science. She is also a board member of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering).

  • Macdonald on the shift to low-carbon: “I’m a complete supporter of everything that we can do about moving this country to a low-carbon economy.”
  • On fracking and climate: “There’s no way that we would ever go ahead with anything that was going to contribute dramatically to the climate change problem.”
  • On zero-carbon gas: “Gas enables us to produce a heating system and a transport system that actually doesn’t contribute climate change if we use these technological advances of decarbonising the gas before use…I don’t think we are in the least bit counter to the Paris agreement.”
  • On hydrogen production with carbon capture: “Steam reformation of methane…breaks the carbon out, takes the carbon away. There are now processes where that carbon can be stored into a solid form, carbonate, which can then be used to create building materials.”
  • On winning over the public: “I’m confident that the bigger picture is so compelling, and the need that we have to be self-sufficient with home grown energy is so compelling…[people] might well review their situation, say actually, cost benefit analysis, there’s very little risk but the benefit is huge.”
  • On coal phaseout: “The sooner, the better. The air quality argument and the climate argument are clear as far as I’m concerned. Coal shouldn’t be part of the future.
  • On what to do with gas: “Because of the drive of the climate challenge, we would then convert that gas to hydrogen rather than just using it as methane, but I think the gas is going to be there anyway.”
  • On public understanding of fracking: “There’s a lot of information out there that is not as accurate as I would like. It’s important that the information is correct because only then can people come to a sensible conclusion of their own. If they still think it’s not an acceptable industry, that is fine.”
  • On women and fracking: “I didn’t say women can’t understand fracking, and I know a lot of women do understand fracking, but I also know a very large proportion tell us they don’t and they want to know more because at the moment they don’t feel well placed to be part of the debate.”
  • On the information deficit around climate and fracking: “Go back ten years, a lot of people would not have agreed with you [on climate change] primarily because they were picking up all sorts of bizarre information and they weren’t sure what to believe. It’s no different [for the shale gas industry today].”
  • On gas and renewables: “It’s not an either or, it’s both in my mind. That’s the way that I want to see it, and I just think gas has a big role to play if we decarbonise it. It’s with the carbon capture bit. That’s where I am. Up until now, I don’t think that that particular opportunity has been put very clearly to people.”
  • On UK shale investment: “A lot of experts have looked at the data and they are confident it is worthy of their investment…It could be they’re going to lose it all. Who knows?”
  • On when a green gas industry could be in place: “Certainly by 2035, I think we’re going to be in a good place…There are so many unknowns. I would love it to be before then, and I think the aim of the industry is that it is before then, but I can’t predict.”

 

Carbon Brief: I wanted to start with a question about the Climate Change Act. Is that something you think is generally a good idea?

Averil MacDonald: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I’m a complete supporter of everything that we can do about moving this country to a low-carbon economy, and the fact that they’ve gone for the fifth carbon budget, to me that’s a good thing. I would not object to that at all.

CB: OK. The Committee on Climate Change has written a report for the government on whether onshore oil and gas exploration in the UK can be compatible with the targets set out in the Climate Change Act. What do you expect that report to say?

AM: What do I expect it to say? Well, I believe that the onshore oil and gas industry actually has a very strong role to play in moving this country towards its climate targets. The evidence that I’ve read says that that’s what’s going to be part of the mix. Gas is going to be part of the mix going forward for a considerable time, so I don’t know whether I expect it to say [that]. I hope that that is reflected in the report, but until I see it, I can’t comment, clearly.

CB: You haven’t seen it?

AM: I haven’t seen it, no.

CB: It’s not something that you have any idea about how soon it will be published, because obviously it’s been with the government for some time.

AM: I, personally, know nothing in detail about that. I assume that it’ll come through before [parliament] go to recess [on 21 July 2016], but I can’t be certain at all. I don’t work with the government to that degree of detail.

CB: OK. One of the biggest climate questions for fracking is methane leakage. There have been many, many studies on leakage rates in the US where obviously most fracking at the moment is going ahead. The estimates seem to range from well below 1% to nearly 10%, and there was a major meta-analysis late last year that tried to reconcile those different estimates and came up with around 1.5%, and I just wonder what your view is on those figures.

AM: Clearly, it’s an important issue. There’s no way that we would ever go ahead with anything that was going to contribute dramatically to the climate change problem, and so the industry as a whole has very much tried to come up with techniques which will mitigate leakage as much as possible. As I understand, usually the research shows that the methane leakage is a result of poor well integrity. The well integrity guidelines in the UK are incredibly robust. The well process for building the well is very strong, and the well completion and decommissioning is also very well regulated. As far as I understand it in the UK, any methane leakage from old wells that have been decommissioned well before the current processes were put in place show very little leakage, and frequently the methane levels in a field with a well in are lower than the methane levels in a field that is next door that never had a well in. I think that we’re in good position in the UK to make sure that our methane leakage is absolutely at the minimal end.

CB: OK.

Jason Nisse, partner, Newgate Communications: Sorry, I don’t know, can I just interject here? The key thing particularly between the US and the UK is that UK wells are linked to the gas grid and US wells are very rarely linked to the gas grid. When gas comes out of a UK well, it goes straight into a pipe.

AM: That’s a good point.

JN: It goes straight into the system, whereas in the US, you put it into a tanker, take it to a place where it’s then put back into the system, and that’s where the leakage occurs.

AM: That’s an interesting point. Yeah.

CB: I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with the interjection in terms of the transcript, because normally we do literally publish everything that’s in the recording, but we’ll come up with something.

AM: Yeah. Or pretend I said it.

CB: There’s a generally accepted threshold, as far as I understand, around 3% methane leakage, beyond which shale gas is as bad or worse than coal in climate terms. Do you think it would be appropriate to set a limit for UK fracking operations recognising that, and if not, what guarantees can you offer that that worse-than-coal threshold wouldn’t be reached?

AM: Worse than coal for methane leakage, not for carbon?

CB: I’m talking in terms of the total climate impact of using shale gas for electricity generation, for instance, as opposed to burning coal.

AM: OK. What I can’t comment on is whether it is realistic to set a limit, because I don’t know what the technological barriers are to remain within a limit. What I do know is that clearly there’s baseline monitoring in all of the sites well before anything takes place, during, and actually post operation, and the plan is not to make any significant change to the air quality, of which clearly methane content would be [one part]. They do take account of all aspects of the area, so again if it is sensible, if it is feasible, to create a limit, then I’m sure we will be part of that process. I’m quite happy to take it for further discussion elsewhere.

CB: OK. Back in 2013, the late Dave McKay and Tim Stone wrote a big report on shale gas for the UK government, which I’m sure you are familiar with. It said that without global climate policies, new fossil fuel exploitation would be likely to increase cumulative emissions and the risks from climate change. Do you agree?

AM: I think that was written at a point when the assumption was that the fossil fuels would continue to be burnt and it is not my intention that they continue to be burnt. This world has moved on, and I think there’s a great opportunity to use fossil fuels in a decarbonised form that actually allows us to use the energy, which we do need in this country and elsewhere, but without the resulting climate impact. While what he said could have possibly been justified under the circumstances in which he was writing, he was not considering the latest technological advances.

CB: OK. You don’t think that the Paris Agreement on climate change coming into force is necessarily a prerequisite for fracking to go ahead in the UK?

AM: There’s a big picture to look at, and we will be taking into account climate impacts, but the issue is what do you do with the fuel? We need the fuel in the UK. We have to have gas. We have to have heating. I’m sure you wouldn’t want anybody to end up with fuel poverty. The gas enables us to produce a heating system and a transport system that actually doesn’t contribute climate change if we use these technological advances of decarbonising the gas before use, and you can decarbonise it readily and then you can move on either to combustion of the hydrogen or you can use fuel cells. In terms of transport, which is another aspect, fuel cells are absolutely the way people are moving, all the big companies, all the car companies, have their fuel cell cars ready to go. In terms of heating, using hydrogen in the current gas grid is such a sensible approach because it uses an infrastructure that we already have. It enables people to continue to use the gas central heating systems they already have installed and it allows them to produce heat without adding to climate change. I don’t think we are in the least bit counter to the Paris agreement.

CB: OK. For instance, last year the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said fracking would be incompatible with climate targets and the industry-backed Task Force on Shale Gas said carbon capture and storage would be essential for fracking within climate targets, but you think that those views also are out of date and no longer relevant?

AM: No. I’m just agreeing with you. Carbon capture and storage is exactly what we would do with the gas in order to decarbonise it, in order that it then becomes a green fuel. That, I’m with the carbon capture and storage pre-use, not post-combustion. That’s the smart bit.

CB: How’s this going to work in a climate where the government’s scrapped its billion-pound support program for carbon capture?

AM: It’s currently put on hold, the carbon capture and storage programme for post-combustion carbon capture and storage. I’m talking about pre-combustion carbon capture, so that it is before the gas is used. A much more straight-forward approach, and there’s actually projects going ahead that are looking at this being the way forward, and I’ll draw your attention to the launch on the 11th of July of the Leeds H21 project, which is what they’re going to look at probably taking Leeds as the pilot town where they convert the current gas grid into a hydrogen grid. Everybody who uses gas for their heating or cooking converts to green gas hydrogen in the same way as I remember us converting from town gas to natural in the 60’s and 70’s, and they will then be carbon capture and storage of the carbon from the methane, natural gas, and then into the green gas hydrogen into the houses. I’m absolutely confident that will be shown through that pilot to work, and that’s going to be the way forward.

CB: Perhaps you could maybe take a step back and just talk me through how exactly shale gas could be extracted in the UK and turned into hydrogen without carbon emissions.

AM: OK, well any gas, whether it’s shale gas from the UK onshore, whether it’s North Sea gas, even imported gas if it has to be, can be decarbonised by steam reformation of methane, which is a process where through steam, that’s the energy input, breaks the carbon out, takes the carbon away. There are now processes where that carbon can be stored into a solid form, carbonate, which can then be used to create building materials so we don’t have to worry about pumping huge quantities of carbon dioxide into wells, which is the process that people think of when they capture carbon dioxide. We then have carbon sequestered into a building material which means basically we can trap our carbon and use it to build our houses. The hydrogen is then created. The plan, so far as I understand it, the details will be out on the 11th of July, is to store the hydrogen in disused salt mines, for example, Teesside, put it into the low pressure gas grid to move to people’s houses. That’s the technique, but it works with all gas. Shale gas is no different from any other form of gas. It’s merely the technique by which it is extracted that makes it worthy of the name shale.

CB: How exactly is that process going to happen in a way that wouldn’t impact people’s bills for heating and gas?

AM: Everybody’s bills for heating will go up in the future anyway because that is a consequence of us keeping to our carbon targets [CB: at the moment, the cost of climate policy is paid via levies on electricity bills alone; gas bills are not affected]. We can’t retain the current level of prices and get to our carbon targets because we need the money to be invested in renewable electricity, and we also will need the money to be invested in green gas, so everybody’s going to see a price rise. However, what I will say is the price increase for natural gas to green gas, to hydrogen gas, will be much smaller than the price increase that would happen to a consumer who had to move from a gas central heating system to an electric central heating system for the simple reason that heating with electricity currently costs three times as much as heating with gas.

It’s going to be much more expensive if we make people go across to an electric central heating system. On top of that, they have to rip out the whole of their gas central heating system and buy a new one anyway, and that’s an additional cost. The big value of going for the green gas network is that we use an infrastructure that’s already in place. We don’t have to rebuild our whole network. People themselves can retain the gas central heating networks they have in their own houses and simply processing the gas to create hydrogen is the only additional cost, so it wouldn’t go up as much as it would, should it become the complete electric scenario that some people are suggesting.

CB: How confident are you about the cost estimates and the viability of this technology? Is this something that’s commercially available at the moment or is this more like a research project that you think is offering opportunity for a home-grown gas industry in future?

AM: The process, as far as a householder is concerned, we’re thinking about the cost for a householder, they would have to convert to a gas central heating boiler. A particular unit within the boiler is simply removed and a new one put in place. That can happen quite readily without a vast amount of money as part of the upgrade. However, some consumers might want to go for the hydrogen fuel cell option. There you don’t burn the hydrogen, you use an electrolysis process of basically generating heat and electricity through sending the hydrogen through an electrolyte, which is a polymer in the middle of the fuel cell. That would require them to buy a new fuel cell. This is not unknown technology. In fact, we’ve known about fuel cells since the middle of the 19th century, and every one of the Apollo and space shuttle missions had fuel cells on board as their provider of heat and electricity and actually it’s their provider of drinking water because the product that comes out of a fuel cell is actually pure drinking water.

The cost of this would be either upgrading their boiler or putting in a fuel cell, and the fuel cell is well-known technology. There’s no additional development. On top of that, just to emphasise the fact it’s well-known technology, as I said, all of the car companies have fuel cell vehicles. Fuel cell buses have been wandering around the streets of London for goodness knows how long, and fuel cell cars are now available. In fact, hydrogen filling stations, a network of hydrogen filling stations, is about to be run out across London and the south east.

CB: On the cost question, I guess I was thinking more about the technology costs of converting the methane into hydrogen. You mentioned steam reformation and capturing the carbon. I’m just thinking, at the moment I pay something like 3p for a kilowatt hour of gas, and how much do you think that’s going to increase if you switch over to a green gas hydrogen-based system?

AM: OK. I can’t answer that question, but look at the report on the 11th of July. All those details are in it. I know that because that was what this particular report was due to do, was to show not only that it was technologically feasible, but also to put in place the costing. What I will say, though, is that if we are investing in something like a new renewable setup, windfarm, solar farm, you have to put in the investment up front to build that. What I know from the gas system, the current gas business, it’s already an established business, it can raise its own investment through the international investment markets. It doesn’t need government investment. It doesn’t need a subsidy. It can raise its money because it’s an established business. What it won’t do is possibly impact the taxpayer in the way that having to install vast amounts of renewable electricity to replace our heating system would. It’s actually not going to be quite so painful in that respect.

CB: The pilot that you mentioned in Leeds, is that something that’s going ahead without government backing?

AM: The report that you will see on the 11th of July is putting forward a feasibility plan for which it seeks funding, but not from the government. It seeks investors.

CB: What sort of amounts are we talking about? Is this hundreds of millions? Billions?

AM: No. My recollection was something of the order of 55 million.

CB: Million. To convert the whole of Leeds on to hydrogen?

AM: Yes.

CB: OK. You mentioned hydrogen cars and I just had a question about that. I had a quick look earlier at sales of alternative fuel vehicles in the UK, and about 75,000 alternative fuel vehicles were sold last year, which was up about 20%, so it’s quite a rapidly growing market. When I looked at a chart of those vehicles, however, they were almost exclusively hybrid and electric vehicles. I couldn’t actually see hydrogen cars on there. How confident are you that there actually will be a hydrogen car economy in the UK, which shale gas could supply?

AM: It’s a bit chicken and egg, because you’re not going to buy a hydrogen car until you know you can refill it, and companies aren’t inclined to put in a hydrogen filling station if they don’t know that they’ve got people with hydrogen cars. Clearly, that’s the barrier. However, as I said, as a starter, there will be within the next few years twelve hydrogen filling stations, I think it’s seven in London, Swindon, Swansea, Sheffield, and I can’t remember the others, but they’re going to put those in as starters. Most of these are run by businesses. In fact, their initial plan is to use electrolysis of water, splitting water using electricity, to create the hydrogen, but the idea is that because the range of a hydrogen car is comparable to the range of a petrol car for a refill, in other words, 350 miles typically for five kilograms of hydrogen, you can put in hydrogen filling stations that people can reach. Once you have the filling stations in place, then they are confident people will start buying those cars.

Germany, on the other hand, has already committed to a complete coverage of the whole of the country with a network of hydrogen filling stations. Canada is very keen to do likewise. Iceland has actually announced it wants to be completely hydrogen driven, even including its fishing fleet. Japan is also very much going down the hydrogen route, not only for its transport, but also for its heating.

CB: Polls in the UK have shown consistent strengthening in the opposition to fracking over time. Do you think that the UK’s nascent shale gas industry is capable of turning that public opinion around?

AM: I’m confident that the bigger picture is so compelling, and the need that we have to be self-sufficient with home grown energy is so compelling, that when people review the situation and understand the fact of how this can be done safely, that it has been done safely, that the track record for safety of the industry, oil and gas onshore and offshore, is significantly better than the scare stories they hear from the US. At that point, they might well review their situation, say actually, cost benefit analysis, there’s very little risk but the benefit is huge. I think at the moment they’re not seeing the benefit. The question’s well, why do we need it? Because they’re being told we’ll just go over to electricity. Actually, we do need it. We need it for transport. You can’t electrify the whole of our transport system. You cannot. You can’t put batteries in HGVs. They don’t work. You’ve got to go for something other than electrification.

In fact, I heard somebody quote recently that if we did attempt to electrify the whole of our transport system, if we could physically, the amount of energy it would require would be the equivalent of about fifty nuclear power stations, and we’re struggling to put one up. In fact, we’re not sure whether the investment in that is still sound, but we’ll see. There has to be another way, and I see the hydrogen route being the other way and our home grown self-reliant gas has got to be a part of that.

CB: You mentioned the Hinkley C new nuclear plant, which is struggling a little bit to retain the high level of political support and investor confidence that it has so far managed to hold up. Do you think it should go ahead?

AM: Yes. We need the baseload. We have to have enough electricity for people to be able to keep their lights on, and for that matter, for those who want to have electric cars to be able charge their electric cars. If we don’t have a nuclear baseload, what are we going to do, turn on the coal-fired power stations again? I don’t think so. At least nuclear doesn’t contribute to the climate issue.

CB: You’re in favor of the government’s plan to phase out coal-fired power stations?

AM: Absolutely. Yes, and the sooner, the better. The air quality argument and the climate argument are clear as far as I’m concerned. Coal shouldn’t be part of the future. The sooner we can replace it with clean alternatives, the better.

CB: OK. You talked quite a bit about how this isn’t just an electricity question. I just wanted to ask if you could maybe set out how you see UK shale gas being used in the future, if it is developed. Do you think it’s going to be used mainly to generate electricity, mainly for home heating and cooking? How do you see the balance between those different uses?

AM: I think it will vary over time, but the issue at the end of the day is that the amount of electricity that we culturally demand and generate is approximately 60 gigawatts, so let’s use that as a round figure. On the worst, cold, freezing winter day, just at night time as we all go home and want to cook our dinner, the amount of electricity we demand, that’s sixty gigawatts. We are capable of generating that at the moment. We’re not capable of generating much more than that, about 4% I think, is our leeway at the moment. As far as heat is concerned, and gas in particular, in the middle of winter on the terribly cold day in the middle of December, the amount of energy that we require is something of the order of 350 gigawatts. If we’re going to move everybody over to electricity for their heating, we would have to generate not 60 gigawatts, but 60 plus the 350. That would mean, clearly, something like six times as much as our current generating capacity being built and at the same time replacing coal.

That gas energy is so smart because it can stay in the pipes until you need it. The problem with electricity is you have to generate it the instant people want it. [National Grid] headquarters is currently watching to turn on or off power stations to make sure people get the electricity they need for these lights and whatever else. The value of gas in heating is that it can stay in the pipes until you need it and the instant you need it, it is there. It is the fantastic storage system. It actually adds an additional bonus. This is a little added bonus. If it is the case we get plenty of wind, at the moment we actually have to curtail it. If there’s more supply than demand, we have to curtail it. If instead of curtailing it you actually use it to electrolyse water to create hydrogen, that is the perfect storage mechanism for a renewable source, because you then inject it into what is now a hydrogen grid and it waits around until somebody needs to do something with it to create heat.

Shale gas would provide the majority of the hydrogen in our network, either the heating or for transport, and our renewables, instead of thinking in terms of colossal batteries or huge vats of warm water or supercapacitors as the way of storing the energy from solar or wind, actually we can store it in the form of hydrogen and then extract the heat from the hydrogen when you need it. The trouble with those other techniques, of batteries and supercapacitors and hot water, is the energy leaks out and in fact they’re not very efficient in terms of transforming the energy from one form to the other. I see shale gas as being the dominant source of our green gas for heating and for transport and clearly we still need gas in its methane form as the feedstock for a colossal number of products, manufactured products, fertilisers, and so on. It’s not something we can completely exclude from our world.

CB: You’ve spoken about your support for UK climate targets and the way you see shale gas fitting into that in the future and filling the needs to decarbonise both heat and transport, which as you’ve mentioned are quite challenging. I’m just a little unclear, I guess. It seems like your proposal, which is to turn shale gas into hydrogen and to store the carbon, is based on what at the moment is not a technology that’s being widely used, and you’re, I guess, lobbying for the creation of entirely new industry in the UK. A shale gas industry, which you’re saying is going to fit in with this other industry which doesn’t exist as far as I understand anywhere in the world at the moment, and I just wonder how confident you are that those things can come about, and if there’s not a risk, once the shale gas industry gets going, whether or not that technology to turn it into green hydrogen exists, it will have its own momentum, and we’ll get the methane being used with the carbon emissions that go with that.

AM: Well, one, we have our climate budget. We have our determination to deal with climate change, so that is what’s driving everything. It isn’t the case that the technology isn’t known. The technology is well-established. It just hasn’t been applied in this context. Shale gas is no different from any other gas. We are simply using a different process for extracting it. The gas is still there, and if we didn’t extract it here, it could be imported, but the advantage of extracting it here, of course, is that we don’t have to pay for it to be imported. We don’t have to pay. At the moment, I think it’s about £18m a day, into somebody else’s economy, benefiting them and losing it from our economy, and people often say look how good the education system and the health services in Norway.

Why is that? Because they sell gas. Why are the Saudis and the Qataris so well off? Because they sell gas and oil. At the moment we pay them. We lose it out of our system. If we had our own home-grown industry of extracting gas, we could keep that money in our own economy. It would pay taxes into our own system. People would have the money and the jobs and they would pay their taxes. That would actually give the chancellor more money to invest in the infrastructure for renewables, which currently we’re struggling to find money to invest in anything, and in the meantime, we’ve then got gas. Because of the drive of the climate challenge, we would then convert that gas to hydrogen rather than just using it as methane, but I think the gas is going to be there anyway. All I’m saying is if we make it home grown gas, it makes us self-sufficient. It benefits our economy and it allows us control. Take back control rather than having to rely on imports from elsewhere. But I think if we say we’re not going to have a shale gas industry here, all you’re saying is well, in which case we’ll carry on importing it. What’s the imperative to stop importing it? Well, there isn’t really one.

CB: I suppose perhaps what I’m thinking about is the fact that quite a lot of the most vocal support for a shale gas industry are also quite commonly groups of people that are opposed to the UK’s action on climate change, and in terms of the public opinion being against shale gas industry, I think one of the concerns is over that, and I’m just wondering how you would ease those concerns?

AM: I’m not sure I agree with you that the supporters of the shale gas industry are counter to the claims and plans for mitigating climate change.

CB: Well, I think if you think about some of the most vocal supporters of fracking in the UK being people like Nigel Lawson, people like Owen Paterson. Even Andrea Leadsom, who’s putting herself forward to be a candidate for the next prime minister, said when she came into her job at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, that her first two questions were is climate change real, and is fracking safe? She did subsequently say that she’s now convinced on both those questions, but I think the fact that she had to ask that question does raise doubts with many people.

AM: I would say, ask her her opinion on hydrogen. She’s absolutely convinced about hydrogen. I think all she was doing, I didn’t hear the conversation, but all I think she was doing was saying, well, OK, let’s get this sorted. OK. Tell me what the deal is, what the details are. Is it real? Give me the facts. OK, right. Understood. I now know that it’s real. Is fracking safe? Right. I now know the facts. It’s asking for the information. Stephen Tindale, ex-Greenpeace, very supportive of fracking. I don’t think you could ever accuse him of being somebody who is denying climate change. I don’t think the assertion that there is a direct association between supporting fracking and denying climate change is a very fair characterisation of the people that I know.

CB: I’m not saying that that applies to all the people that support fracking. I’m just observing that there’s definitely an overlap.

AM: Yeah. There’s one or two people with whom I disagree on the climate issue, but my view, and you’re interviewing me today, is I’m absolutely committed to dealing with the climate issue. I’ve worked with Sir John Houghton, one of the grandfathers of issues of climate, who wrote the very first global warming book. That’s where I am, and I’m putting forward my view, which is we, as an industry, shale industry, will be part of the solution.

CB: OK. Last year, when you came into this role as chair, you attracted some quite wide coverage for some comments you made about women’s understanding of fracking, and I just wonder whether you regret being known for that and having said those things?

AM: I did learn a lot about how the media work, I agree. To be honest, I think most people have forgotten that. Conversely, what it did do is raise the debate, and at the end of the day we need people to have the facts in order to be able to be part of the debate, in order to be able to come to a genuine opinion, and we saw that actually with the Brexit. There’s an awful lot of people saying the only reason it went one way was because the information was less accurate than they might have liked. I don’t like the fact that with an industry like the gas industry, there’s a lot of information out there that is not as accurate as I would like. It’s important that the information is correct because only then can people come to a sensible conclusion of their own.

If they still think it’s not an acceptable industry, that is fine, but at the moment I think it’s a bit like it was with phone masts a few years ago where everybody was up in arms because they believed that phone masts would cause their children to die of brain cancer because that was the story that was being put out, and people are naturally cautious and they say, oh, if that’s what they’re saying, it must be true. I now know you don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers because I certainly didn’t say what I was quoted as saying.

CB: I’d like to come back to something else, but can you maybe then set out what you did say?

AM: What I said was women tell us, when we ask them, that they feel they don’t know enough about fracking, and that’s because of the fault of the industry and failing to explain it in a way that makes sense to them, not the fault of the women. I didn’t say women can’t understand fracking, and I know a lot of women do understand fracking, but I also know a very large proportion tell us they don’t and they want to know more because at the moment they don’t feel well placed to be part of the debate. It’s wrong if they feel excluded from the debate, so what I’m hoping to do is to enable them to be part of that debate by helping them find the information they’re looking for.

CB: That fits in nicely with what I wanted to come back to, which is this idea which you seem to be, by implication, holding, that what’s lacking here is the correct information and that people hold views that you talked about, genuine views or once they had the facts they would be able to come to a genuine decision, and that sort of implies that people are opposed to fracking simply because they don’t understand, or simply because they don’t know enough about it, and I wonder if you could say whether you really think that that’s the case.

AM: If you look at the data, you will find there’s approximately the same number of people opposed to fracking as support fracking, and a huge number in the middle who really don’t know quite where they sit, which side of the fence. Those are the people who don’t know, in their mind they don’t know enough to be able to make the decision, and they’re the people who are being excluded from the debate. If people have made up their mind, and they have the facts, fine, but it’s a very, very large proportion who haven’t yet found the information that they feel they know. You’re interested in climate change, you will know if we go back, what would it be, eight or ten years, there was an awful lot of information about climate change out there that was causing people to doubt that climate change was real or that it was man-made, and they were very uncertain where to go to find the right information.

Clearly, that information is now more readily available to people and people have now understood the information and been able to find it and then come to a conclusion and they would agree with you that actually climate change is real and climate change is something that is man-made, but go back ten years, a lot of people would not have agreed with you primarily because they were picking up all sorts of bizarre information and they weren’t sure what to believe. It’s no different.

CB: Is it not the case, according to the surveys carried out by DECC, that people that say they understand more about fracking are more opposed to it as opposed to those that don’t know about it? Are you confident that as people learn more about fracking that support would turn around and come to a majority of people in favour?

AM: At the end of the day, it’s hopefully a reasonably democratic country that we live in, and what I would hope is that we at least allow people the opportunity to hear the debate and hear the information. If ultimately the country as a whole decides this is not the way that it wants to go, that’s what we’d have to abide by. I’m not going to force anybody against the will of the whole of the population to do something that they consider is not acceptable to them. Conversely, my view is that it is of great benefit to the greater good of everyone to have a home grown self-reliant source of energy that is low carbon, and I think gas, alongside renewables, and I’m a great supporter of investment in renewables. It’s not an either or, it’s both in my mind. That’s the way that I want to see it, and I just think gas has a big role to play if we decarbonise it. It’s with the carbon capture bit. That’s where I am. Up until now, I don’t think that that particular opportunity has been put very clearly to people.

CB: In terms of how quickly those developments that you’ve talked about could actually happen, when would you see a kind of commercial scale large fracking industry being established in the UK and how quickly after that would you see it being integrated into a green gas network?

AM: Oh, goodness. If only I had a crystal ball, wouldn’t that be useful? We don’t know until we have drilled exploratory wells just how much gas will flow. We can’t actually predict, and at the moment all of the planning applications that are in or pending are about exploratory wells. It is highly possible that somebody will turn up on of these sections and say frankly the gas doesn’t flow. Could be somewhere else it does flow. I can’t predict that. However, a lot of experts have looked at the data and they are confident it is worthy of their investment, and a lot of companies and a lot of investors are putting a lot of their own money into this industry. It’s not subsidised by the government. They won’t do that unless they see a value to it, so at the moment investors are putting their money. It could be they’re going to lose it all. Who knows?

If it were the case that we can get sufficient amounts of gas out of the shale layers, then the pilot in Leeds will be the root through which we will see the gas become a medium for decarbonising our heating systems and our transport systems. If we don’t find that as a root, I really am struggling to find another way of heating our houses. I don’t see how we can physically have that sort of infrastructure, and the amount of disruption that it would cost us, money and time, to dig up everybody’s roads to put in much more substantial cables and change all of the transformers in your substations to send the electricity into people’s houses for heating, I wouldn’t want to have to live through that.

CB: I guess the UK’s climate targets set a pretty strict time table for decarbonising the whole economy, not just electricity, not just heat, not just transport, but the whole thing, and it sounds like you’re not willing, necessarily, to put a timetable on the development of a green gas industry based on UK shale. I just wonder how that’s meant to fit together, and if shale gas truly can be part of meeting the UK’s climate targets, shouldn’t we be a little bit more confident? There are certain things we know we can definitely do now. Is green gas from shale one of those things, or is it an unknown that you think is simply worth investigating?

AM: Again, until you see the report on the 11th of July, right, which I have to wait for, so you can announce it when you put this out. The 11th of July report will give us a great deal more substance, specific information about costs, about potential timetables, about the investment that is required, and so on. All of that will be there. I’m not the person who can give you those facts, because I’m not the expert in gas distribution networks, but Northern Gas Networks, they will tell you everything you need to know on the 11th of July. Come and talk to me again after that, once I’ve read that report.

CB: It’s not just about that, though, is it? It’s about developing the actual shale gas extraction industry and developing the carbon capture technology.

AM: The carbon capture technology exists, so it isn’t-

CB: But scaling it up to a commercial scale-

AM: Absolutely. The 11th of July report will give you those details. As far as developing the shale industry is concerned, the only delay at the moment is the time it takes planning offices to do their work to enable the companies to start their exploration. Once they know whether the gas will flow, then it can be rolled out, but until they’re allowed to put the drill in the ground, actually, there’s very little they can do about it, so I would love it to start tomorrow, but we can’t until planning offices and planning permission has been duly gone through.

CB: So you think, say by the 2030’s, when we’re going to need to seriously start tackling heat and transport, by that time, you think it’s possible that a green gas industry would be in place?

AM: [pauses] 2030’s… Certainly by 2035, I think we’re going to be in a good place.

CB: But not before then?

AM: There are so many unknowns. I would love it to be before then, and I think the aim of the industry is that it is before then, but I can’t predict. I might not even be around by then to see it either, that’d be a bit depressing. But it’s what I want. I’m a mother of two children in their twenties. I’m hoping grandchildren will be on the horizon. I’m not going to suggest something that is going to either risk the environment or the health of young people, at the end of the day. This is definitely something that needs to be looked at seriously, and I can see the potential. 2035, to me, to get that in place, not just started, in place. It’s not a bad ambition.

CB: One last question, if you’ve got time. We’ve talked about climate change targets, we’ve talked about understanding fracking and women, and obviously it’s quite possible that the next prime minister is going to be a woman, either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom [are] both strong candidates. What do you think their views are on climate and indeed on fracking?

AM: Well, I know what Andrea Leadsom’s views are because in her current position, she’s been very clear. She supports fracking and she supports the hydrogen side of things. Theresa May, I’m afraid I don’t know, but won’t it be an interesting time if by Christmas we have a leader of Germany, UK, US, all women, and possibly the leader of the opposition in the UK also a woman. [Inaudible] the world is improving.

CB: OK, well thanks very much. We’ll leave it there.

The interview took place at the London office of Newgate Communications on Monday 4 July.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief interview: Averil Macdonald
  • Prof Averil Macdonald on shale gas and climate, winning over the public, and her comments on women and fracking

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