The absence of sufficient climate safeguards leaves greens with little choice but to oppose UK shale gas developments
For the past few months one debate has dominated the UK's environmental and energy community, although to refer to it as a "debate" implies a level of dignity and rational thinking that has been sorely lacking - "almighty row" is probably a more apt description. The argument in question centres, of course, on whether or not the UK, and by extension Europe, should embrace fracking and join the global rush to exploit its shale gas resources.
For various reasons this relatively narrow energy policy debate has morphed into a much wider argument about climate policy in general, the future nature of the UK's energy mix, and the state of play in various swing seats in the run-up to the 2015 election. On one side, the sensible pro-fracking argument that shale gas can cut emissions in the medium term by replacing coal and providing a transition fuel towards a genuine low carbon energy mix has been hijacked by climate deniers and anti-green media commentators who care more about attacking environmentalists than developing credible long-term energy policy. On the other side, many green campaigners have sought to make shale gas a totemic issue and have vowed to do everything in their power to block UK developments, while conveniently ignoring the fact that, like it or not, the UK is going to source gas from somewhere for several decades to come.
The net result is an increasingly ill-tempered battle, dubbed the "frack wars" by The Telegraph's Geoffrey Lean, and characterised by remarkably aggressive bought-and-paid-for industry lobbyists, intransigent green protesters, anguished Home Counties MPs, and a deep division at the heart of government over whether shale gas represents a useful, if relatively marginal, addition to our low carbon energy mix or a God-given miracle that will revolutionise our economy and is worth tearing up our climate change targets for.
The problem is that this binary debate disguises numerous strata of nuance and complexity that both sides of the argument are guilty of ignoring. The only rational response to the prospect of the UK sitting on significant shale gas reserves should be an in-depth exploration of how to best ensure gas really does act as a cost effective transition fuel that enables the near complete decarbonisation of our energy infrastructure by 2030. The question that needs answering is can we make affordable shale gas compatible with climate change obligations? Mindless cheerleading for a "fracking revolution" and blanket protests against any and all drilling do nothing to help us answer this complex question.
The problem for the fledgling British shale gas industry is that it is possible to make a case for it playing a sizable role in aiding the UK's decarbonisation and ensuring that emission targets are met in principle, but extremely difficult to see how this role can be safely realised in practice. While others argue over whether shale gas represents economic salvation or environmental armageddon, I find myself in the somewhat confusing position of thinking it should be welcomed in principle, but largely, if not completely, blocked in practice.
The reasons for welcoming UK shale gas developments are far more compelling than many within the environmental movement are willing to acknowledge. As the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has made clear, gas will continue to play a key, if potentially diminishing, role in the UK's energy mix through to at least 2030, particularly for the provision of heat. Moreover, the potential emergence of cost effective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could ensure gas forms part of a decarbonised energy mix post-2030. It is clear that the UK, and other countries, will need significant supplies of gas for at least the next 20 years and potentially longer.
Consequently, there is a strong economic, environmental, security, and indeed moral argument for developing our own gas resources. Economically, it makes more sense to tap our own shale gas resources than import gas from elsewhere, and while UK shale gas is unlikely to result in a significant global drop in gas prices any increase in supply should apply some downward pressure on energy costs. Environmentally, gas promises to cut emissions wherever it replaces coal, while there are also additional efficiency savings to be made from developing gas domestically rather than importing it. Energy security benefits obviously come from reducing our reliance on imports from unstable parts of the world. And from an ethical perspective it is worth asking why we expect others to extract our energy for us? Why should we cauterise North Dakota and not Tatton? There are valid arguments about population density and the impact on local communities, but then again wilderness has its own value. If we are willing to require communities to live near nuclear plants, coal power stations, and wind and solar farms in order that our energy needs are met, then a staggeringly compelling case is needed not to ask some of them to live near fracking sites.
And yet all these reasons to embrace fracking get us no closer to answering the key question of how to make shale gas compatible with the need to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2050 - a target which experts are convinced requires the decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030. Shale gas might make short term economic sense, but you still have to face up to the question of how opening up new reserves of fossil fuels can be sensible when the science dictates that we need to start leaving those self-same fuels in the ground?
The fact is that shale gas only becomes environmentally credible if there are cast iron guarantees that it really is going to act as a "transition fuel" and it will, within less than 20 years, either be phased out or only used in conjunction with CCS technology. Many within the shale gas industry argue that this will indeed happen, but when you look at the groups campaigning for the UK to adopt a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector that would help deliver such a transition the shale gas industry is notable by its absence. In fact, if the Whitehall rumour mill is to be believed, gas industry lobbying is one of the main reasons Chancellor George Osborne is so vehemently opposed to the adoption of a decarbonisation target for 2030, in defiance of the independent Committee on Climate Change.
As something of a "climate hawk", I'd argue the government would need significantly greater powers than a simple decarbonisation target to ensure that a boom in domestic shale gas supplies did not result in the UK breaching its emissions goals. Ensuring that ministers have the authority to halt production from shale gas wells and close unabated gas fired power stations should not be seen as over-the-top given the critical importance of decarbonisation, although no doubt gas investors would argue differently. But regardless of the precise nature of the legislative safeguards, you need some kind of rock solid guarantee that unabated gas power will be phased out by 2030 and currently we don't even have the protection offered by a decarbonisation target.
However, getting these kinds of safeguards is likely to be the easy part of making shale gas environmentally credible. The other component that is critical to shale gas being regarded as either an effective transition fuel or a precursor to a mass CCS rollout is a global phasing out of unabated coal-fired power. Yup, you read that right, we are going to need a worldwide ban on coal.
The shale gas industry is good at pointing out how the US shale gas boom has helped to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions, but it is less good at explaining why global emissions have just kept rising despite a sharp reduction in emissions from the world's largest economy. The answer is that the coal that would have been burnt in the US has simply been shipped elsewhere for burning. Shale gas's role as a viable transition fuel only really works if the coal to gas switch happens at a global scale and coal mines actually start to close (or CCS becomes widespread). As one senior government source explained to me recently, we've got to find a way for managing down global emissions from fossil fuels that breaks the current pattern where, like a partially deflated balloon, squeezing down on emissions in one area simply leads to more emissions elsewhere.
A recognition that we need to tackle the global crisis of coal emissions is gaining momentum - Professor Myles Allen's controversial article in the Mail on Sunday last weekend is basically a call for a rapid phasing out of unabated coal power - but for those who criticise current international climate negotiations as unrealistic to then call for what amounts to a global agreement for a moratorium on coal without CCS is faintly ridiculous.
Inside the world's seminar rooms and lecture theatres, it is possible to make an environmentally credible case for UK and European shale gas. Decarbonisation targets backed by strict enforcement rules and global emissions performance standards for power generation that allows the rapid phasing out of first unabated coal and then unabated gas plants are entirely compatible with the rapid transition to a low carbon economy that is so urgently required. They would lead to deep emission cuts, provide more time for renewables to become ever more cost competitive, and also give fossil fuel firms the long-awaited incentive required for them to properly invest in CCS technology.
The problem is that it is near impossible to envisage such an approach first being adopted and then proving effective.
A global ban on unabated coal power might be entirely rational, but the chances of it ever being agreed are as slim as George Osborne campaigning for the next election with an "I Heart Wind Farms" badge on his lapel. Without international action to tackle coal use and drive a global switch from gas to coal the only way for the UK to ensure its shale gas aids the low carbon transition would be to continue to purchase the coal we would have burned, and then bury it. And yes, I am fully aware of how costly and ridiculous this would be.
More pertinently for the UK, the adoption of watertight decarbonisation targets would make it extremely difficult to find investors willing to develop shale gas projects - hence the current row over the proposed decarbonisation target. You have to ask yourself if you would invest in a shale gas project knowing that without currently untested CCS its domestic market could largely disappear within 15 years. Those wanting to see UK shale gas play a role in the UK's decarbonisation would be left hoping that Lord Browne was serious when he made his arrogant assertion that Cuadrilla would invest "whatever it takes" to extract UK shale gas. With the government happy to import power from foreign state-owned energy projects, but ideologically opposed to getting its own hands dirty in the energy market, it is difficult to see how significant environmentally-responsible shale gas developments would be able to proceed until cost effective CCS is proven at scale.
You also have to ask if such safeguards would hold. Developing a UK shale gas industry is a little bit like Chekov's Gun, once it has been put on the table in the First Act it has to be fired in the Third Act. The government could authorise new shale developments and gas infrastructure while adopting a decarbonisation target. It could assert that the new infrastructure will only be used in the long term as an occasional source of back-up power or a basis for CCS. But once it is there the temptation to continue to use it long after we should have decarbonised will remain. The prospect for further lock in to the unsustainable model of digging up and burning fossil fuels will be strengthened. The gun will almost certainly go off.
The net result it is that in principle it is possible, and in many ways desirable, to develop a UK shale gas industry that supports the decarbonisation of our power sector. But in practice the safeguards needed to ensure shale gas genuinely does act as a low carbon transition fuel are not being adopted. The shale gas industry, meanwhile, is doing itself no favours, arguing that it wants to be part of a low carbon mix one minute, then lobbying against necessary climate protections the next, while all the time failing to properly engage with the need for urgent progress in CCS development.
The government is left trying to navigate between the two increasingly extreme rival factions, while being forced to consider a reckless pro-gas path advocated by George Osborne that only becomes environmentally credible if we assume the Chancellor eventually loses the argument over a decarbonisation target and CCS does indeed prove technically feasible and environmentally cost effective. As I have argued before, barrelling forward with more fossil fuel infrastructure in the hope that CCS will materialise soon is like bingeing on doughnuts because you read in the Daily Mail that a miracle diet pill could be developed one day.
Shale gas could and should play a role in the UK's future energy mix, just as it should play a role globally in efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions. But only if stringent safeguards are put in place to ensure that it really does deliver deep emission reductions and does not lead to another 40 years of reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure that would only lead to climate crisis. As a climate hawk, I would argue that these safeguards should be robust, comprehensive, and international in their nature. But as an absolute bare minimum they should include a UK decarbonisation target, more ambitious EU emissions goals, a CCS strategy that represents a major improvement on our currently "farcical" efforts, and an indication that international action to tackle the coal crisis is at least under way.
The sad reality is that we do not have those safeguards in place currently, and as such green campaigners and businesses alike have little choice but to oppose the development of UK shale gas on the grounds that its development poses too great a risk to our decarbonisation efforts.
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