Fracking: ‘Gang plank to climate chaos’ or ‘necessary part of decarbonisation’?

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Ineos video: Leading the UK shale gas revolution

Ineos video: Leading the UK shale gas revolution

Fracking is a threat to the climate and the environment in the UK, says Professor Peter Strachan of Robert Gordon University. No, the climate benefits of domestically produced shale gas outweigh the risks, argues Stephen Tindale, co-founder of consultancy Climate Answers. The two men held a fascinating debate at the Houses of Parliament in London on 29 November hosted by the All-Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas. Ruth Hayhurst of the independent journalistic website Drill or Drop published an account which we reproduce here with permission.

Professor Peter Strachan (left), of Robert Gordon University, and Stephen Tindale, co-founder of Climate Answers, gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on unconventional gas and oil on 29 November 2016. Professor Strachan, Strategy & Policy Group Lead at Aberdeen Business School, argued that fracking would be banned in Scotland because it failed key tests on energy security, economics, environment and public health, climate change. “We should say no to this dirty fuel”, he said.

Strachan and TindaleStephen Tindale, who told the meeting he was now a consultant to INEOS Shale, argued: “Shale is a necessary part of decarbonisation”. The former adviser to the industry-funded Shale Gas Task Force (2014-2015) and Executive Director of Greenpeace (2000-2006) added that he was confident fracking would be “well regulated enough” in the UK.

This is what the two men said – in their own words – on key fracking issues.

Does fracking have a social licence?

Peter Strachan

There is no social licence for shale gas north or south of the border. It lacks public support in the UK. The government’s public opinion tracker published in October 2016 found that only 17% of people support fracking. In comparison, 79% of people support renewable energy.

Stephen Tindale

I agree. There isn’t a social licence at the moment. But that can change. One of the reasons I thought it was appropriate for me to try to speak out was because I think too many of the green movement are ignoring the human rights argument but also ignoring the potential role of gas in reducing emissions and the issue of whether shale gas is used in electricity generation is not as bad as coal.

Does importing gas support slave labour?

Stephen Tindale

The Greenpeace 2030 Energy Scenarios  report says 25% of heating should be electric. That is good. That is the right direction to go. That leaves 75% to come from what? The answer is gas. The question then is where does the gas come from?

At the moment, we get a lot of gas from Qatar [25%]. In my view, we should not be getting gas from Qatar, not primarily for climate reasons. More important is the human rights case.

The International Trades Union Congress has done an excellent report on Qatar, which says that however good the direct employer tries to be it is effectively a slave labour economy. To me, supporting a slave labour economy by trading is wrong. So I think the human rights case on importing gas from Qatar needs to be answered.

Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, all these potential places that we could import from, they have very problematic human rights records.

Peter Strachan

I do agree that the UK should take a firm approach to human rights, wherever that should be the case. The UK, however, has fairly strong diplomatic, military and economic ties with Qatar. The trading relationship with that country is worth £5bn a year. Through diplomatic and other means we should be putting pressure on Qatar to clean up its act. What about our obligation to the citizens of the United Kingdom, to protect them from the threat of climate change?

How much gas do we need?

Peter Strachan

I do slightly object to the point that Stephen and other campaigners take when they start with the question where do we currently get our gas from. I think that’s a mistake.

The specific question we should be asking is how much gas do we actually need in the future? We need to work backwards from that and think about what other low carbon options are available, such as energy efficiency, conservation measures and such like.

If you ask the question ‘how much gas do we actually need?’ you can develop a scenario where we can produce enough gas offshore along with low carbon options onshore.

Stephen Tindale

Shale gas is a fossil fuel, yes, but not all fossil fuels are as bad as each other. Gas is much more about heating than it is about electricity generation. It will remain the main heating fuel for many decades.

It is going to take decades to replace all the domestic heating with electricity and some of the renewables – biomass and biofuels – have very dodgy climate credentials so not everything from renewables is good. That’s why we need other forms of low carbon heating to get enough low carbon electricity to replace not only fossil fuels generation but also oil for transport and gas for domestic heating. So we need a lot more low carbon electricity.

Electricity can’t be used for all heating. Electricity cannot provide heat that is hot enough to carry out industrial processes. So we need other forms of heat, some of which can be from nuclear and some of it should be gas with CCS [carbon capture and storage].

Threat to climate change or necessary bridge?

Peter Strachan

The Committee on Climate Change concluded [in a report for the Scottish Government] emissions from fracking in Scotland would be inconsistent with climate change emissions targets in Scotland.

Research by Nick Corwen and Robin Russell James submitted to the Committee on Climate Change identified another problem attached to fracked gas. Their concern is fugitive methane emissions. These emissions, over the life cycle, make fracked gas two times worse than coal.

Exploiting more fossil fuels to stop climate warming is, in my view, a ludicrous argument. Fracking is a gang plank to climate chaos. The precautionary approach should be adopted.

The climate change issues are significant. By 2030-2035 we will be looking at oil and gas in a completely different way. We might see the end of companies such as Shell, BP. A whole different ethical and moral perspective will dominate. For me it is 100% renewable energy future and until we get to that point we can source enough gas offshore and from Norway to meet any needs that we may have.

Stephen Tindale

Shale is a necessary part of decarbonisation.

Renewables and energy efficiency are the ideal scenario but it is going to take a very long time, even if your objective is to be 100% reliant on renewable energy. It is going to take many decades.

The only country that I am aware of that has a target of 100% renewables for all energy uses is Denmark. Denmark’s target is 2050. They are already a long way ahead of most others, they get about 40% of their energy from renewables. In my view, 100% renewable is not the correct target because only bioenergy and geothermal produce heat directly.

Carbon capture and storage

Stephen Tindale

The CCS situation is the fault of the UK government* but I very much hope that the Scottish Government will be supportive of calls for Greg Clark [the Business Secretary] to reintroduce the CCS approach because we do need it.

I kind of agree that without CCS gas has no long-term future, certainly in the power sector. CCS in the heating sector is more complex.

I hope the Scottish Government will see fit to support onshore fracking for shale gas

The Committee on Climate Change has indicated that their expectation is that for CCS for gas it is going to be less expensive than CCS for coal. The country that has experience of CCS for gas is Norway and they have been doing it since 1994. They have not been using it in power generation but they have been using it at an offshore gas facility because the gas was not right for generating electricity. They have been making carbon dioxide out of it and they have been successfully storing that since 1994.In the UK, in my view, the government should focus the CCS effort not on coal but on gas.

Peter Strachan

In my view, fracking threatens the climate. Fracking without CCS is a show-stopper. We shouldn’t even be thinking about it.

Economics

Peter Strachan

Fracking economics just don’t add up. It is a boom and bust industry in the United States. It is also a debt-ridden industry.

The Scottish Government report commissioned from KPMG concluded: ‘If oil and gas prices were to remain at historically low levels it would be unlikely that unconventional oil and gas resources in Scotland could be developed economically’.

If you take the low range estimates [from the KPMG report] of what fracking would be worth to the economy, I was astonished at how little the contribution was. Estimated total spend to 2062: £1.5bn; estimated total value added to the Scottish economy: £0.1bn; jobs created: 470; tax receipts: £0.5bn. In my view this is negligible.

Stephen Tindale

Will shale gas be economic? I don’t know. Nobody knows because the geology of the UK is very different from the US so it needs to be tested. Is that a waste of money? It might be. The question then is whose money is it? Is it public money? No.

There should not be any direct subsidy or grants to the shale industry. Should there be tax breaks? Yes, possibly, because at the moment there is no revenue from tax so if you reduce the tax rate it might get something. That could be usefully used in Scotland to support local councils.

On economics: we don’t know, we shouldn’t give public money to it but we should be prepared to allow them to proceed if they have their own money.

Impact on other industries

Peter Strachan

Fracking is a direct threat to the renewables sector. Already, as a result of government policy we have seen thousands of people in the renewable sector lose their jobs. In addition, fracking is a threat to the offshore and gas industry. Shale gas will derail our transition to a low carbon economy.

Going on international experience, there is every likelihood that fracking would have an adverse impact on other industries, whether the threat is real or perceived.

Tourism, agricultural, food and drink are heavily dependent on having a beautiful natural environment and water. For UK Plc, fracking will undoubtedly damage these sectors. In Australia, for every 10 new jobs created by shale oil and gas agriculture loses 18 jobs.

The KPMG report [for the Scottish Government] concluded ‘Development of unconventional oil and gas in Scotland will also rely on the ability to obtain appropriate funding (debt and/or equity) to support exploration and extraction’. I don’t think that the banking sector will be impressed by this debt laden industry in the UK.

The recent financial crisis witnessed in the US fracking industry will undoubtedly impact on the $100bn that will be required over a 20-year period to make a UK fracking industry in any way meaningful. That money would be better spent on lower carbon sources. I would recommend that money should be spent on the renewable sector.

Fracking is creating energy insecurity in the offshore oil and gas industry and in the renewables sector.

Stephen Tindale

Energy insecurity in the renewables sector is not being caused by shale. It is being caused by the Government’s flip flops.

Their attitude to onshore wind is inconsistent with their attitude to shale. They’re saying if a local council says no to an onshore wind farm that’s it, no question of calling it in. But on shale if a local council says no they call it in. That inconsistency is not an acceptable basis, in my view, for energy policy. They should both be treated the same. So, shale and onshore wind should be subject to call in because they’re both in the national interest.

Energy security and low carbon economy

Peter Strachan

I don’t think that shale fracking is a solution to the multi-faceted energy challenges that we face in the United Kingdom. Fracking will not help address the 2020 energy crisis we are facing. The shale gas revolution cannot happen quickly enough to address this.

Talking about gas as a bridging fuel is derailing our transition to a lower carbon economy. Shale gas is the enemy. It is not going to help that process.

The SNP [Scottish National Party] 2015 manifesto stated ‘We will not allow fracking or underground coal gasification in Scotland unless it can be proved beyond any doubt that it will not harm the environment, community or public health’.

In my view, the Scottish government can reach only one conclusion and that is to ban fracking in Scotland. Both Westminster and Holyrood must ultimately end their continued fixation with fossil fuels. A better solution is to harness the power of the wind, sun and also the sea of the United Kingdom.

Stephen Tindale

When Amber Rudd [former Energy Secretary] said ‘We are going to shut down coal generation’ she said only if there is energy security, by which she meant only if there are alternatives available installed. So, if there isn’t capacity installed coal will stay open. That is pretty much the worst outcome from a climate perspective.

I completely agree we need to do much more on wind. We need to do much more marine and tidal power.

Environment and public health

Peter Strachan

Fracking fails in a spectacular way on the test of environment and public health. A definitive review of the literature that has been published on shale gas extraction [Towards an Understanding of the Environmental Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development] has results that are quite revealing. 84% of the literature on health revealed public health hazards, elevated risks or health impacts. 69% of the literature indicated positive associations or actual evidence of water contamination. 87% found elevated air pollutants and atmospheric concentration of pollutants.

People should be frightened of chemicals when it comes to fracking. Evidence from the Yale School of Public Health on chemicals used in the fracking process in the United States found significant contamination of water, land and air.

Insufficient weight in the UK and Scotland has been given to the health and environmental issues associated with fracking. … Much of the peer-reviewed evidence is being overlooked.

An argument often given by the pro-fracking fraternity is that we can regulate the risk away. We’re told that you can regulate away all risk but the problem with regulations is they are not preventative..

If you look at the offshore oil and gas industry. During the past few months for example we have had two major spills offshore. … Just think of the devastation such an oil leak could have onshore.

Stephen Tindale

I agree it is a developing science and I agree it needs to be very strictly regulated and very strictly monitored.

The experience from the US under W [George W Bush] was basically amateur cowboys and so some terrible things happened. Yes, Obama has tightened up the regulations, quite considerably, and I think in the UK they [the oil and gas industry] have a good regulatory record. So I think there are grounds for confidence that it would be better regulated in the UK – that’s not hard – and that it would be well regulated enough to minimise threats to public health. Not down to zero but everything has some risk.

I am confident that the risks from fracking are low enough to be worth taking.

However, it must be very heavily monitored. … If when there are some wells operational, if the evidence shows that the impact is much greater than anticipated then people like me should be prepared to say ‘ok, the evidence suggests that we have to stop.’

As well as evidence-based policy-making – we don’t see much of it but we hear a lot of talk about it –  there needs to be evidence-based campaigning and at the moment campaigning is not sufficiently in this area evidence-based.

A supporter and opponent of onshore fracking went head to head at Westminster yesterday in a debate on shale gas.

Editor’s Note

This article was first published on the independent UK-based website Drill or Drop and is republished here with permission.

Both Stephen Tindale and Peter Strachan have been published on Energy Post, see their author’s archives here and here.

To view all our articles on shale gas, follow this tag.

Comments

  1. Tilleul says

    Solar district heating with seasonal storage in Denmark is producing cheaper heat than natural gas in the UK and the technological progress in this field are even faster than what we saw in PV…

  2. Helmut Frik says

    When I read this I ask myself which industrial process requires a temperature which is a) more hot than a wire of a simple light bulb, or more hot than a electric arc, and b) how natural gas can produce this temperature, burning at temperatures much lower than easily reachable with electricity.
    And why should anyoune use gas for heating in several decades? It just took 2 decades to change all heating from coal and wood to oil and gas. There is no cause visible why the next change should take any longer.

  3. Mark Heslep says

    “We should say no to this dirty fuel”

    Unless of course it comes from the North Sea. In the book of Strachan: North Sea oil and gas good, competition for North Sea oil and gas bad, bad for the UK, bad for the Earth.

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