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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

20.09.2013 | 4:30pm
ScienceUKIP’s energy policy: Lots of fracking, little evidence
SCIENCE | September 20. 2013. 16:30
UKIP’s energy policy: Lots of fracking, little evidence

UKIP is ready to put the party into party conference, meeting today to celebrate its 20th anniversary at a time when it’s flying high in the polls. In preparation for the revelry, the party’s energy spokesman, Roger Helmer MEP announced its latest policy this morning: frack the UK.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Helmer said the UK had to “look at the available evidence” for developing a shale gas industry. UKIP has – and concludes fracking can only be a good thing for the economy, he says.

UKIP’s fracking plan

Exploiting the UK’s shale gas resources could provide an “economic windfall” for the country, and UKIP has plans for that bounty, Helmer told the Today audience.

UKIP has seen how the US’s shale gas industry boom has decreased domestic energy prices and helped its economy recover and is feeling inspired. He cites evidence from the British Geological Survey, which estimates the UK has 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas locked underground.

Helmer claims that if 10 per cent of that can be extracted, it could meet the UK’s gas demand for 40 years.

While the US industry has an average extraction rate of around 10 per cent, there are a variety of technical and geological obstacles which could mean UK companies can only access a fraction of this.

Nonetheless, Helmer sees no reason developing the UK’s shale gas industry couldn’t “transform” Britain’s economy too.

UKIP would put revenues generated from what it hopes would be a booming shale gas industry in a sovereign wealth fund – a savings account for the whole country. Norway has done something similar, with its fund now being worth around £600 million. This would keep the money safe for future generations instead of being frittered away by cash-strapped governments, Helmer said.

Helmer argues that companies should be allowed to get on and drill to provide better information about the potential for a UK shale gas industry.

While exploratory drilling probably is the only way the industry can progress, the only company to have licenses to explore for shale gas in the UK – Cuadrilla – has had its operations held up in both Sussex and Lancashire due to public opposition and technical difficulties. Despite Helmer’s optimism, there’s no evidence other companies would get an easier ride.

Pushing on with shale gas exploration would also probably mean fast-forwarding planning applications despite environmental concerns. The Environmental Agency expects it to take up to six months to assess fracking applications to ensure operations don’t damage local water sources and it can guarantee the drilling process safe.

So it seems that while Helmer has done lots of research into the US’s shale gas experience, he hasn’t really translated it to the UK context.

Selective evidence

Of course, there’s a wider context to UKIP’s shale cheerleading, because the party doesn’t want to cut the UK’s emissions in line with its legally-binding climate change targets.

The Committee on Climate Change says one way we can do this is by “virtually decarbonising” the electricity system. But when Helmer was asked why UKIP supported fracking but not windfarms, Helmer replied:

“… windfarms are a non-solution to a non-problem. They provide an intermittent trickle of very unreliable and very expensive energy whereas gas on the other hand is absolutely fundamental to the energy mix”.

He said UKIP would “explore the possibility of shale gas” and “get rid of the windfarms”.

Gas is a pillar of the UK’s electricity generation and there are those who argue it could be a bridging fuel while the government tries to decarbonise the energy sector, replacing more polluting coal.

However, actually replacing wind power with gas could be catastrophic to the government’s chances of hitting its climate change targets. The government has a legally binding obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. As a large chunk of the UK’s emissions come from the energy sector, decarbonising power generation is going to be an essential part of achieving that goal and moving towards a low carbon economy.

About 11 per cent of the UK’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2012, with the majority of this coming from onshore and offshore windfarms. If all these wind turbines were replaced by frack pads and gas turbines, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions would soar.

Government advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, has warned that a dash for gas would would bust the UK’s climate targets. Likewise, Parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Committee has said it only supports more gas generation if it is developed alongside carbon capture and storage technology – but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon. So the evidence suggests UKIP’s policy would lock the Britain into a higher-carbon future.

No problem!

Of course, this won’t bother the party. After all, noted climate skeptic Lord Monckton has a long and illustrious role within UKIP – he’s currently their President in Scotland. UKIP’s energy policy document, released last year, contained numerous distortions of climate science, and significantly exaggerates the potential benefits of exploiting the UK’s fossil fuels.

It even goes as far as to downplay the importance of carbon dioxide as a driver for climate change – “It is a natural trace gas in the atmosphere which is essential to plant growth and life on earth. Higher CO2 levels increase agricultural crop yields and  ‘green’ the planet. Man- made CO2 emissions amount to only around 3% of the natural carbon cycle.”

The party argues that the UK should be free to continue mining and burning coal until we run out. On this basis, it’s not entirely clear why the party believes in more fracking. Given that coal is currently cheaper than gas, if you reject scientific opinion and don’t believe that carbon dioxide is causing climate change there’s really no reason to burn anything else.

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