At the centre of this tour was a five day stay at ‘Reclaim the Power’ in Balcombe, Sussex and in my last post I suggested writing a separate piece about the arguments for and against fracking.
Let’s look at the argument for fracking. The key arguments are that it will help energy security (and make us less dependent on foreign imports), it will reduce the prices of energy bills and it will reduce our carbon emissions because it will replace coal in electricity generating power stations.
Proponents of fracking argue that we need gas. We cannot survive off renewables alone, North Sea gas supplies are declining and the less gas we import, the less dependent we are on places like Qatar (the single largest importer of gas to the UK). Qatari gas could be switched off to us, or increased in price as a result of political instability, including instability that many would welcome (as happened in Libya when the people rose up against Gaddafi).
According to Greenpeace, imports of gas exceeded domestic gas for the first time in 2011 and Centrica estimates that 70-80% of our gas will be imported by 2020 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/newsdesk/energy/data/where-do-we-get-our-gas
And do we really want fracking to be rolled out on a scale that would replace declining North Sea gas supplies? According to Bloomberg, this would require 10,000 to 20, 000 wells to be in operation across the UK.
I totally accept that, however serious you are about reducing carbon emissions, you will not be able to ‘switch off’ fossil fuel supplies tomorrow. But what is needed is a properly managed decline.
A number of individuals and groups, notably the independent Committee on Climate Change have shown how electricity could be virtually carbon-free by 2030. In contrast, this year the government has unveiled its plans for forty new gas-fired power stations and removed the ‘decarbonisation target’ from the Energy Bill. These power stations create ‘lock in’: a power station has a life of thirty years or so. It would be very unlikely that, once built, they would not be used. Even if shale gas boomed in the 2020s to match current North Sea gas supplies, it would only provide less than 50% of total supplies. The rest would be from imported gas.
Perhaps the most well-aired debate over fracking has concerned its impact on energy prices. On Monday August 12, the day of my first gig on the tour, David Cameron wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“Fracking has the real potential to drive energy bills down. …many people are struggling with the cost of living today. Where we can relieve the pressure , we must. It’s simple – gas and electric bills can go down when our home-grown energy supply goes up.”
“The reservoir of untapped energy will help people across the country who work hard and want to get on: not just families but businesses, too, who are really struggling with the high cost of energy. Just look at the United States: they’ve got 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than here.”
There are a number of weaknesses in this argument. The shale gas boom in the US has undoubtedly lowered energy prices. However, the US is essentially an isolated market. By contrast, the UK is plugged into an integrated European market where gas is sold to the highest bidder, whether inside or outside the UK. Experts say that even a huge increase in the amount of domestic gas the UK produces would be likely to dent the wholesale gas price.
On 2nd September Lord Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics .hit the headlines when he criticised the government to encouraging a rush into fracking without a thorough analysis of its ramifications .He said, “I do think it’s a bit odd to say you know that it will bring the price of gas down. That doesn’t look like sound economics to me. It’s baseless economics.” He went on to say that “We’ve not had a proper discussion on these serious issues.”
Even Cuadrilla themselves have said that the reduction of energy prices –in the event of a shale gas boom would be ‘insignificant’ at around 2-4%. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/cuadrilla-pr-man-admits-george-osbornes-shale-gas-revolution-wont-cut-energy-bills-8656246.html
These points were supported in a speech by Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who said on 9th September that “It’s far from clear that UK shale gas production could ever replicate the price effects seen in the US. The situation is different here. ”
To me it looks like shale gas is a ‘Trojan horse’ which is used to allow in a ‘dash for gas’ strategy, a strategy which would result in leaving us dependent on imported gas supplies that have recently become more expensive and are likely to become even more expensive. In May the Committee on Climate Change produced a report (‘Next steps on electricity market reform- securing the benefits of low carbon investment’) that showed that by the mid 2020s depending on gas for energy would result in bills that would cost each household £1, 600 more than if the UK was moving towards a low carbon economy. (http://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/next-steps-on-electricity-market-reform-23-may-2013/)
There’s another positive alternative, too. High gas prices affect all of us, but they affect the poorest in our society most of all. It would be so much more impressive if the government recycled its carbon taxes to implement a programme of upgrading the UK’s housing stock to address fuel poverty. This would, of course, reduce gas use (for domestic heating) and reduce the impact of rising gas prices on the most vulnerable. You can read about the ‘Energy Bill Revolution’ campaign on this (supported by 196 MPs) on http://www.energybillrevolution.org/
Carbon Dioxide emissions
The final major argument for shale gas is that it will reduce coal use and that it has lower carbon dioxide emissions. As I said earlier, we cannot reduce fossil fuel use to zero tomorrow so we need a ‘bridging fuel’ to help us to manage the transition to the low carbon economy.
These points were made yesterday, the 9th September by Ed Davey. He said “Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal.”
He went on to say that “It should help reassure environmentalists like myself, that we can safely pursue UK shale gas production and meet our national emissions reductions targets designed to help tackle climate change.”
Interestingly, on the same day the Chief Scientific advisor in Ed Davey’s department, David Mackay said that shale gas development is likely to lead to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions without an international deal on climate change. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/potential-greenhouse-gas-emissions-associated-with-shale-gas-production-and-use
There are a number of reasons for not agreeing with Ed Davey and others who regard shale gas as a green ‘bridging fuel.” The first is that shale gas drilling produces methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. A study came out in June saying that the increase methane emissions in America due to fracking may cancel out the carbon dioxide reductions. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jun/04/methane-leaks-negate-climate-benefits-gas
The second is that, even if we believe that the shale gas boom has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the US, the same boom has had an unfortunate emissions knock-on effect globally. Because of the shale gas boom, the US was using less of its coal. Because it was using less, the coal price fell and more was available for export. As a result there was a surge in coal use in the UK to 39% in 2012 from 29% in 2011 and coal use globally was the highest since the 1960s. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/25/coal-one-third-uk-energy
The third reason I would call ‘psychological’, for want of a better term. No-one seriously thinks that shale gas will most all of our gas needs, let alone all of it. And yet, the shale gas option allows us collectively to keep thinking in the same ways, to remain dependent on fossil fuels and to avoid the alternative solutions of renewable energy, improved efficiency and managed decline. The proponents of fracking (at least some of them) say you can do both- use gas and reduce emissions. Even if this is technically possibly, it is certainly not happening under this government, as their rejection of the clean energy target in the Energy Bill and their failure to address fuel poverty adequately demonstrate.
I have deliberately not looked at the other non-climate arguments against fracking. There are many additional reasons for people rejecting it including water use, water pollution and geological disturbance. Indeed, in his ‘baseless economics’ interview last week (2/9/13) Lord Stern said he was also concerned that we did not have enough water or enough space for fracking and was concerned about water pollution.
My approach has been to consider whether, even if all these issues were addressed through improved practice, regulation and use of technology (and I’m not suggesting they could be), can we rationally object to fracking as a bridging fuel to the lower carbon economy.
We absolutely can.