This Dash For Shale Gas Should Be Plan Z, Not Plan A

So it’s official. Deep in Carboniferous and Jurassic rocks beneath parts of the north of England are locked an estimated 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. That is an awful lot, far more than was ever produced from North Sea fields. Is this a natural windfall of great economic importance, an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate cutting-edge technological capabilities and a source of long-term energy security? Or is it a temporary delusion, laden with far more risk than its political backers are willing to manage?

While headlines warning of earthquakes are likely to be overstated, worries about contamination of groundwater are a real risk, as has been demonstrated from shale gas development in the US. And given the high demand for water in the fracking process, there could be tensions over the allocation of this critical resource during future drought periods.

More immediate and obvious than these questions are above-ground visual intrusions. Considering how, for some ministers and MPs, the enthusiasm for shale gas is in part fuelled by an equally passionate hatred of wind power, largely because of its landscape impact, it is surprising that they assume shale gas will be a palatable alternative. Put “shale gas rig” into an internet search engine, select “images” and see what’s in store.

These are tough issues, although not unique. The wind power industry has had to deal with criticisms based on an equally broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact. What the renewables companies have not had to contend with, however, and which is set to be the main source of strategic opposition to the development of shale gas in the UK, is the fact that its large-scale exploitation is not compatible with meeting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase that is considered a critical danger threshold, then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground. The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new “dash for gas” should be Plan Z, not Plan A.

This makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country. It will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced. No one knows how much of that 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost. Production rates are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards. Add to that the expectation that it will not reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks less attractive than some proponents suggest.

Despite the downsides and uncertainties, I am not against any new gas ever – even shale gas. It can be cleaner than coal and could be a transition fuel displacing that worse energy source. It might have a role in transport and could even be part of the power generation mix, assuming the local and global impacts can be managed, including the use of carbon capture and storage technologies.

And this is where government has become the worst enemy of an energy source it claims to support. By blocking the adoption of a decarbonisation target for the power sector in the Energy Bill, by failing to accelerate into practical effect demonstration projects for carbon capture and storage, and by talking down renewables in favour of gas, it has made things far worse for shale gas.

If as a country we knew how we were to meet our overall carbon-reduction goals, then the trench warfare that is about to break out over shale gas could be avoided, or at least made less bloody. Gaining local consent is a challenge for all new power sources – whether that be wind, solar, biomass or geothermal – but the carbon context will be the killer issue for shale gas.

The shale gas narrative presented this week by George Osborne was in part based on the fear of being “left behind”. His Environment Minister colleague Owen Paterson (who has stunned climate scientists in expressing doubts as to the human impact on the climate system) used the same phrase last week in his promotion of GM crops. Both of them say that a technological revolution based on government getting out of the way of progress is what we need.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Where we are being left behind is in the development of environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas, it requires clear policy. You can get away with small government on some issues, but not on energy. We need a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don’t have that.

If you are against shale gas, then perhaps the absence of policy is something to be welcomed because it makes your case stronger. If you are an investor in it, you should be very worried indeed.

This article was first published by The Independent, Friday 28th June 2013.