Whatever Fred Pearce says, shale gas is not the answer
Journalist Fred Pearce has written in The Guardian calling on his fellow environmentalists to have an open debate on Shale Gas. Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea, he says? Shale Gas is the gas which is now accessible through the newish form of mining – fracking – campaigns against which are sweeping the UK and Europe.
In his piece, he weighs up both some short term benefits, and some long term risks. To summarise, he argues that gas is the least polluting fossil fuel, and so if it’s replacing coal – the most polluting – then that’s a good thing. I am always up for debate, and I think he is wrong.
Let’s look at a couple of the things he says. First, let’s take his view on the climate impact of Shale Gas.
“Take the US. From a standing start a decade ago, it now gets more than a quarter of its natural gas from shale. Production is so cheap there that shale gas is replacing coal in power stations; and as a result its carbon dioxide emissions are the lowest since 1992.”
Really? There are two problems with that. The first is the correlation. If carbon emissions have fallen, is it because of Shale Gas? Some people have said so. But Greenpeace’s energy desk went back to the raw data from the US Energy Information Agency. And they discovered that this just isn’t true. The main reason for the reduction in emissions (if there was one) was in fact growth in renewable energy.
I say ‘if there was one’ because that too is dubious – or, at least, its scale is. You see, when these figures are calculated, they ignore something important. They don’t look at how much methane has escaped from the ground. And with fracking, this might well be a huge factor. There have been various studies, with various conclusions. But one thing is clear. When gas is extracted through fracking, which involves the hydraulic fracturing of rocks, some of it isn’t captured. Some of it leaks into the atmosphere. And methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
The result is that, according to some calculations, fracking is more polluting than coal. At the very least it isn’t the sunshine and roses that the industry makes it out to be.
So, to summarise, when Fred Pearce swallows the line that fracking reduced US carbon emissions, he is ignoring two things. 1) emissions from power plants reduced more because of renewables than because of the switch to gas 2) his figures do not include the direct emissions from gas wells, which are one of the main problems of fracking. No one knows exactly how polluting fracking is – and it varies from sight to sight. Some say it’s worse than coal. Others say its not so bad. But it certainly isn’t as climate clean as conventional gas.
Next, let’s look at the idea that we need a bridging technology. This is, in short, nonsense. He deals in his piece with the problem that, once all the infrastructure is set up to burn the gas, all the gas will be used. And that in itself is crucial: short of some kind of revolution, once gas rigs are set up, they will ensure that the stuff is pumped out until it’s all burnt. But he fails to raise other points.
If it’s a bridging technology, where is it bridging to? New renewable technologies he says – scaled up, bigger renewables. But as the Centre for Alternative Technology have shown, Britain’s energy needs could be met with current technology. Whilst I am all in favour of investing in better stuff, what we have now is enough. The problem isn’t the science. It’s that fossil fuels get about ten times the subsidy from the government that renewables get.
Most of all though, he seems to miss the most important fact that, in the long run, if we accept fracking, then it won’t replace coal. We will just have both shale gas, and coal. Our profit driven economy might temporarily switch from one to the other, but if its given any choice capitalism never goes long before saying ‘can I have both?’. If we allow this monster to open a new chocolate box, it will just gorge the contents of the two at once.
Finally, the piece ignores local impacts of fracking short of accepting that there are some places where it probably isn’t appropriate. But I can’t think of any place I’d rather have a fracking rig than a windfarm.