The Task Force on Shale Gas' latest recommendations don't go far enough, but if the government wants to be seen as serious about decarbonisation it must embrace them
Few things are likely to anger environmental campaigners quicker than ministers' tendency to describe shale gas as a 'green' or 'low carbon' source of power. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd has done it, as has Chancellor George Osborne, and each time this gambit gets a response from environmentalists akin to the response from monarchists when you dare to 'snub' the national anthem.
But, does this trolling of anti-fracking campaigners, also raise a legitimate point? Could a UK fracking industry play a credible role in tackling climate change and delivering a low carbon economy, as its cheerleaders so frequently claim?
This is the question the industry-backed Task Force on Shale Gas today attempts to answer in its latest report on the viability of the UK's nascent fracking industry and to no one's great surprise it has concluded shale gas does indeed have a role to play as a "bridge" fuel in the transition towards a fully decarbonised energy system. Leaving aside justified questions about precisely how 'independent' a task force is when it is instigated by the industry it is examining, the conclusions are likely to be welcomed by both the shale gas industry and the government. But before they celebrate too loudly it should be noted the report also presents an important challenge to the government's currently high risk and climate reckless shale gas strategy.
As chair of the task force, former Environment Agency chair Lord Chris Smith, observes, the Committee makes two "strong recommendations" to ensure UK shale gas represents a bridge to a low carbon future rather than a cliff edge to push the country's carbon targets off. "First, there must be immediate progress in developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) for gas-fired power stations and industrial plant," he says. "And second, we recommend that the government should deploy revenue derived from a developed shale gas industry to investment in R&D and innovation in CCS and low carbon energy generation, storage and distribution."
The report actually goes a little further than these two recommendations, also noting shale gas development should only go ahead if it is "properly regulated, implemented and monitored" and arguing that "for a shale gas industry to serve appropriately as a transitional fuel it is important that it is clearly demonstrated that this will not prohibit or slow the development of renewables and low carbon energy industry".
The challenge to ministers implicit in these recommendations is clear, in that they once again highlight the way in which the government's fracking strategy attempts to put the shale gas cart before the CCS horse. Green groups have today criticised the task force's report, but it does, albeit in less strident terms, echo their criticism of the government's failure to deliver the safeguards needed to ensure any new fracking industry results in a time-limited medium term fix for our energy security needs and not the long term formation of a new climate incompatible fossil fuel industry.
As a climate hawk, I'd argue that before concluding shale gas exploration should go ahead the task force should have insisted on significantly more demanding recommendations being picked up by ministers. A UK domestic shale gas industry may help to cut UK carbon emissions by replacing higher carbon coal and imported LNG, as today's report concludes. But if we are to take the step of building such an industry a much stronger policy line is needed from government on what happens to this new high carbon infrastructure if CCS plants do not come online. Ministers also need to demonstrate how genuinely low carbon renewable heat technologies will be developed to eventually replace gas heating, how the fracking industry could be wound down within 20 years if need be, and how international efforts can help ensure the LNG that is no longer imported to UK is not simply burnt elsewhere. That is why a new binding decarbonisation target for the power sector, a wider zero carbon energy strategy, and an international climate change accord are so important to any attempt to paint shale gas as a key part of the low carbon transition.
If the government cannot deliver these safeguards then it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regard the development of a shale gas industry and the delivery of sufficiently steep reductions in emissions as compatible.
However, the task force's recommendations are a good start to this much-needed debate and if ministers are serious about developing an environmentally responsible shale gas industry that supports, rather than undermines, a credible decarbonisation strategy they really should embrace them wholesale, before then starting work on the additional climate safeguards the nascent sector needs.
The problem is to date the government has shown very little appetite for embracing what are reasonable recommendations put forward by the shale gas industry's own task force.
We have been waiting over six years for a single CCS demonstration project to get underway and the hope that every fossil fuel fired power plant in the UK will feature the technology by 2030 is now as shaky as the ground around a poorly managed fracking well. Ministers are still yet to deliver on the task force's previous recommendation for full independent monitoring of fracking projects to mitigate against the risk of methane leaks and other environmental impacts. The Treasury typically resists any attempt to hypothecate fossil fuel tax revenues, and besides Chancellor George Osborne has already spent the money from a putative fracking boom, not on CCS and renewables R&S, but on a wealth fund for his 'northern powerhouse'.
Most importantly, the idea shale gas investment should be mobilised in parallel with longer term investment in genuinely low carbon energy sources has been badly dented by ministers' summer assault on renewable energy subsidies - an attack that has taken place at the same time as subsidies for coal and gas power plants have been retained and a raft of fracking licences have been awarded.
If the government wants to credibly position UK shale gas as a low carbon or green energy source then ministers need to deliver much stronger climate safeguards for the sector, starting with the task force's modest set of proposals. The fact ministers have to date shown little or no interest in embracing such policies - apparently for fear it may put off those self-same shale gas investors who keep talking up the commercial bonanza that awaits them - tells us everything we need to know about whether they are serious when they say shale gas represents a bridge on the way to a truly low carbon future.
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