As the decision on fracking at Little Plumpton in Lancashire is delayed, Dr John Broderick of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, part of Manchester Energy, considers whether a UK shale gas industry may turn out to be an anachronism.
Whether the go-ahead for fracking in Lancashire is given or not, there is little expectation from the industry that they will be producing large volumes of gas within the decade. Set against this there are a number of reasons to expect changes in the UK’s energy landscape that are likely to constrain the long-term prospects of the industry. Investors must therefore be either very optimistic on the ease of production, which can’t be taken for granted, or confident that they can divert policy makers away from effective climate action.
Fundamentally, the issue facing this fledgling industry is one of a declining demand for gas. Across Europe we have seen improvements in energy efficiency, changing patterns of consumption and renewable generation of electricity decrease the demand for gas since its peak in 2010. In 2014 it reached its lowest level since 1995. In the short term UK gas demand may increase due to the closure of the majority of our coal power stations in the next decade, however, this process will occur before the potential availability of shale gas. Talk of shale gas being a lower carbon fossil fuel than coal is therefore of very limited relevance within the UK context.
All fossil fuels are high carbon, natural gas being the lowest at 75% by mass. In the long term, we know that it is imperative to leave the bulk of known, economically viable fossil fuel reserves underground to avoid dangerous climate change. This is taken for granted in the case of coal but extends to all fossil fuels – including conventional and unconventional gas.
It may suit Shell to talk of gas as a “destination fuel”, or Lord Browne, who manifestly failed to redirect BP “beyond petroleum”, to stand with the Pope and argue for a renewed focus on “carbon light” fuels but this ignores our knowledge of the climate system and the fact that gas is far from “carbon light”. Climate change is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and it is useful to think in terms of sharing out a carbon budget through time. The growth in emissions in the last two decades restricts the emissions space available in future, so much so that IPCC scenarios that describe energy systems unlikely to push us beyond 2oC warming are almost entirely dependent on geoengineering to take us into net negative emissions. The few that don’t necessitate immediate climate action.
If we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change and the social and ecological upheavals it will entail then we must be equally serious about leaving fossil fuels underground. Gas is a particularly valuable and versatile hydrocarbon, and very important in fertiliser production. Nevertheless, whilst the chemical industry may benefit from reduced costs, were a UK shale gas industry large enough to sway the whole European market, it still only represents less than 2% of UK demand.
The possibility of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that would reduce the emissions output from fixed power stations is attractive, but will always reduce efficiency, add costs and increase the complexity of power generation. Extracting gas from shales is more challenging than from conventional rock strata so combing higher-cost shale gas with expensive CCS will not be a low cost energy solution. Moreover, even if successfully adopted, the emissions per unit of useful energy will be many times greater than those from either the renewables or nuclear. Much more plausible is that in the longer term, priority for limited CCS capacity will be given to bioenergy power stations over gas in order to compensate for persistent emissions from diffuse and difficult sources like air transport.
If declining North Sea gas production is our policy concern, then we must consider the system as a whole. The most cost effective way to reduce our need to import gas is to cut our demand for gas in the first place. Insulating homes to a high standard, improving the efficiency of the fabric and operation of commercial premises and increasing onshore wind generation could all be delivered promptly and would all save substantial volumes of gas. A combination of these measures could cut total demand by 25% over and above the DECC baseline projection by 2030.
Over similar timescales to the growth of a shale gas industry, heat networks, heat pumps, bioenergy, smart grid solutions and diverse energy storage technologies offer the prospect of a decarbonised UK energy system. Like the growth of a shale gas industry, such changes would require deliberate effort, coordination, incentives, research and of course local politics, but they all have viable and sustainable long term prospects. Alongside these technologies, a large scale UK shale gas industry could be producing for export, but that’s not a proposition I’ve heard raised nor, I suspect, one that the people of Lancashire would be enamoured with. However, whilst we are likely to have some persistent gas requirement in the UK, the issue of whether or not this would be sufficient to provide economies of scale for a shale gas industry is, at best, moot. Econometric models show that lowering the cost of gas globally does not deliver a safe climate as nuclear and renewable investment is displaced and more gas is consumed in total.
Reviewing this issue, Prof David Mackay, the government’s previous Chief Scientific Advisor on Energy and Climate Change concluded that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.” As we go into the international climate negotiations in Paris in December, the UK is better placed to secure a global deal if it leads by example and demonstrates commitment to a decarbonised future than if it presides over the development of yet another high-carbon energy industry.