Our dependence on a constant supply of energy presents seemingly intractable dilemmas. One of these is whether fracking should be permitted. Professor Paul Younger and Professor Kevin Anderson took opposing views in a recent online debate.
In the US, the recovery of underground reserves of shale gas and its extraction from solid rock through the technique of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is well established and makes a significant contribution to energy needs and costs. While the technology is less developed and considerably more controversial in the UK, major fields have been identified in the north of England, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, with companies keen to exploit them.
The UK Government believes that shale gas could provide a ‘bridge’ to a low carbon future and plans to make it easier for businesses to explore and drill. Opponents argue that the environmental cost is unaffordable. In the latest in the Speakers’ Corner Trust’s Forum for Debate series, two leading scientists present contrasting judgments.
Paul Younger, Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, believes that “the furore over shale gas fracking has generated far more heat than light”, and that “shale gas could be developed onshore in the UK in a safe and non-polluting manner.”
He argues that “the real shale gas debate is whether indigenous sources of gas have a place in wider public policy. Climate change policy is clearly central. Since gas has roughly half the carbon emissions of coal, replacing coal with gas can play a valuable transitional role in decarbonisation.”
Professor Younger warns of the effect of not exploiting UK reserves. “If we import it via pipeline or tanker, its carbon footprint goes up significantly – and that’s before we even consider cost, the geopolitics of dependency, and the poor human rights records of the gas-rich states waiting eagerly for our business.”
He is concerned, too, about the social consequences of rejecting shale gas. “Fuel poverty is also a key consideration. In my city, the poorest live in tower blocks with electric heating. When we replace this with gas-fired district heating, fuel poverty diminishes markedly. Moreover, 82% of UK households are reliant on gas for heating and hot water and replacing this in short order would be a herculean task which I have seen no political party even suggest. Until we have a means of doing that without greatly exacerbating fuel poverty, we will continue to use gas in great quantities.”
Professor Younger adds that “indigenous gas production feels like the least-worst option for simultaneously addressing climate change, fuel poverty and security of energy supply.” He concludes: “While ceasing all atmospheric emissions from fossil fuels is the ultimate goal, we need to be clear that, in the meantime, it is far better to use gas than coal.”
Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, agrees that climate change is the key issue, but reaches a very different conclusion about the use of shale gas. He argues that “however ‘clean’ the extraction, once combusted the carbon emitted will change the climate for many decades and centuries to come.”
He adds: “Fossil fuels, whether coal, oil or gas, emit large quantities of carbon dioxide when combusted. Shale gas is no different. In all practical terms it is simply natural gas comprising (by mass) 25% hydrogen and 75% carbon. Wrestling any hydrocarbon from the ground is an inevitably messy, noisy and periodically dangerous and environmentally destructive process.”
Professor Anderson believes that, far from helping to reduce carbon emissions, the exploitation of shale gas can only add to them and to their consequences to vulnerable people around the world. “When the next typhoon batters the coastal region of a poorer nation, the number of families dislocated, the infrastructures damaged and the crops destroyed will all have been exacerbated by the 20cm rise in sea level that our emissions of carbon dioxide have already triggered.
“Shale gas will generate electricity with emissions per kWh typically 40 times higher than renewables or nuclear. Even with carbon capture technologies, emissions will still be over 10 times higher. The IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets combined with weak equity criteria and some basic arithmetic clearly demonstrate that a UK shale gas industry cannot be reconciled with our 2°C commitments.”
He concludes: “We have all the resources and tools necessary to become a low carbon and climate-resilient society… in which shale gas remains in the ground, not least as a symbol of our genuine commitment to future generations and the preservation of our unique planet.”
- The debate is published in full here.
- Speakers’ Corner Trust is a registered charity which promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship. Fracking – A Price Worth Paying? is the latest in SCT’s online Forum for Debate series which provides protagonists on either side of an issue with an opportunity to set out rational, accessible arguments as a means of stimulating a broader public debate.
Kevin Anderson will take part in a debate on fracking as part of Policy Week 2015
Stretching across five packed days and featuring discussion, lectures, workshops, simulations and even films, Policy Week brings together leading thinkers, academics, students and policy influencers to debate and progress key policy issues. Sign up for events using the links above.
This year’s theme is Science, Technology and Public Policy, and the event programme is part of European City of Science Manchester 2016.