Last week, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey gave the go ahead to the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – in the UK as part of the UK Energy Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Commons today. Is it the answer to our energy prayers or is it too good to be true?
On the face of it, the government’s go-ahead to the extraction of shale gas in the UK would seem like a good idea; a no-brainer even. It has been claimed that this new gas supply would facilitate the UK’s energy independence and bring lower prices for consumers, much as it has in the USA. It would promote investment in the UK and create jobs. In being able to generate more power from gas instead of coal, the government say that it’s clean too. What’s not to like?
Well, consider the claims regarding gas prices, investment and energy independence. There is some dispute as to the size of the gas reserves, which as yet have only been estimated, not fully ascertained. The size of these gas reserves will impact upon how much we pay for our new gas, and it’s possible that we may not enjoy the reduction in gas prices that US consumers have. International wholesale gas prices, which will surely dictate by how much our gas bills fall (if at all), mean that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a proportion of our new gas reserves could actually be exported, should market forces and profit margins dictate. This, in turn, could mean that any financial benefits which the UK could reap may also be exported while we continue to import gas from abroad.
But, gas supporters cry, renewable energy is expensive. It has been suggested that renewable energy sources such as offshore wind are expensive to construct and, while there may be some truth in this, such installations are cheap to run once they are on stream (the same can also be said about nuclear power generation, though that has its own environmental and fiscal issues). Conversely, while gas-fired power stations are relatively cheap to build, they are expensive to run and will no doubt continue to be so, as these running costs are inevitably subject to the vagaries of international wholesale gas prices which, as we all know, tend to go up like a rocket and float down like a feather.
Incidentally, such caveats also apply to the car. While electric and plug-in hybrid cars are currently expensive to buy, they are cheaper to run than conventional cars. Conversely, conventional internal combustion-engined cars are cheaper to buy than their low carbon counterparts at the moment, but are more expensive to run and may well continue to be so. The prices of low carbon vehicles and renewable energy sources will inevitably tumble as technology advances and take-up widens.
So it appears that that claims about lower gas prices and energy independence may not be all they seem. Now consider claims about shale gas being a clean source of energy.
Depending on what you read and where, coal makes up 30-40% of the UK energy mix, and it is indeed true to say that shale gas is cleaner than coal but, then again, what isn’t? However, gas is only cleaner than coal, and not actually clean in itself. It is still a fossil fuel and, as such, will still emit carbon as it is burnt.
The Committee on Climate Change, a body which advises the government on climate matters, has said that the UK cannot pursue shale gas on the scale that is proposed and still meet its 2050 carbon targets. The Committee has also suggested that encouraging investment in a ‘dash for gas’ would result in less investment in renewable energy sources in the future. As if to fulfil this prophecy, Chancellor George Osborne has seen fit to announce yet another subsidy to the fossil fuel industry in the shape of tax incentives to encourage companies to exploit shale gas reserves.
Another subsidy? Oh yes. Figures from the International Energy Agency show that the fossil fuel industry received $523 billion globally in subsidies during 2011, a figure 30% higher than in 2010 and six times higher than was received by the renewables industry over the same period.
As if they need it! The developed world has been built on fossil fuels and, despite now knowing the impacts of our dependence on them, continues to be so. A new geological era – the Anthropocene – has even been coined because of it. Why on earth do fossil fuel companies require subsidising? Surely it is nascent industries which offer the chance to escape the lock-in fossil fuels and do things better which warrant subsidy, not a business-as-usual scenario. The subsidising of fossil fuels suggests an addiction to carbon.
How can a merely comparatively clean energy source be described as environmentally friendly or ‘green’ when it attracts investment away from truly clean energy sources? By proffering tax incentives to oil and gas companies, Mr Osborne also seems ignorant to the fact that the 2008 Climate Change Act – the first of its kind in the world – is actually law, and exploiting shale gas reserves simply will not do enough to decarbonise the UK energy mix.
To extract the gas from shale beds, a process known as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is employed, whereby a well is drilled into the ground and a cocktail of sand, water and chemicals is blasted into the well to fracture the bedrock and release the gas therein, which is then brought to the surface. However, this brings another environmental problem, one which also illustrates the spin and flawed media reporting associated with the fracking process.
It has been widely reported how test drilling in the Blackpool area of Lancashire was suspended in 2011 because of small tremors later accredited to the activity, and which subsequently led to a moratorium on the drilling. To his credit, Ed Davey last week announced a ‘red line’ of 0.5 on the Richter scale as a condition of the resumption of drilling, as opposed to the ‘red line’ 1.7 on the Richter scale reportedly demanded by drilling company Cuadrilla. Yet because minor tremors are very common in the UK, whether they are natural or the result of historic mining activity, surely the relatively minor seismic activity resulting from fracking is the least of our worries.
It’s entirely possible that gas wells will pass through groundwater sources as they are drilled into the bedrock which, in turn, means that there is the potential for the water table to be contaminated by the pressurised chemical cocktail – the ingredients of which are shrouded in secrecy – used in fracturing. Although deemed unlikely, the potential for such contamination is surely a much greater issue than low level seismicity, and it yet has been glossed over in comparison to the emphasis given to minor seismicity. It seems that we have forgotten just how utterly elemental water is, at least until the worst happens.
Shale gas may have a place in the transition to a low carbon energy mix, but to pursue it at the expense of renewables is short-sighted. We are an island nation surrounded by waves and tides, and our location provides us with the best wind resource in Europe. We even receive daylight. Our unique geography means that we are in a prime position when it comes to renewable energy resources, and yet we are a mere 25th place out of the 27 EU nations in terms of renewable energy provision, ranking above only Luxembourg and Malta.
Investment in renewable energy, together with energy efficiency policies, would create jobs and would be better placed to provide energy independence than would shale gas. Given the potential wealth of natural, renewable energy resources we have in the UK, it is investment in a nascent renewables industry, and not the dash for shale gas, that is the real no-brainer.