The public debate over shale gas fracking has generated far more heat than light.
As a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer with 30 years’ experience of both protecting ground water from pollution (especially by mining) and remediating such pollution where it has already occurred, I have watched in horror as my area of scientific expertise has been grossly misrepresented in the public row over shale gas.
I made a few interventions to try to correct glaring conceptual errors, but was met with hate-mail and a death-threat for my troubles. My Twitter account was so overwhelmed that I had to close it.
Having served on two government-requested expert review panels on the topic (one UK, one Scottish) I am satisfied that shale gas could be developed onshore in the UK in a safe and non-polluting manner.
The mature UK regulatory systems are more than capable of accommodating an activity which is far less challenging than many others we routinely manage already. To argue otherwise requires you to believe that practices which have long been outlawed in the UK will nonetheless somehow be implemented in the case of shale gas – despite the minute scrutiny the sector is under. I don’t believe that.
Yet the main reason that the debate has got so heated is that this is precisely what did happen in the USA.
The bizarre pork barrel politics of the USA allowed this in the form of an Act of Congress sponsored by then Vice President Dick Cheney who was also a VP of Halliburton, one of the largest oilfield service companies worldwide. Every US Vice-President is conventionally allowed to put one pet Act through Congress unopposed and Cheney chose one which would exempt shale gas from most environmental controls.
Once people had been given the impression that shale gas could only be developed by abandoning basic and well-established pollution prevention procedures, they reasonably assumed that it must be horrendous. The shale gas companies were too busy enjoying their bonanza to bother with public engagement. Social media ensured that the worst scare-stories crossed the Atlantic long before the first well was mooted.
Nevertheless, the first movers in the UK failed to recognise the necessity of early and genuine public engagement – and the result is the bitter public debate we have today.
To my mind the real shale gas debate is whether indigenous sources of gas have a place in wider public policy. Climate change strategy 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.
Fuel poverty is also a key consideration. In my city (Glasgow) 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. 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.
Then there is the issue of power-grid balancing to cope with increasing penetration of intermittent renewable generators, for which gas-fired turbines are the lowest-carbon technology available at scale. My research focuses on finding affordable alternatives with a lower carbon footprint. I have to report that we are as yet nowhere near rolling out any such alternative.
Were we recklessly to abandon gas anyway, I suspect no government would survive the ensuing blackouts and hypothermia pandemic.
So indigenous gas production feels like the least-worst option for simultaneously addressing climate change, fuel poverty and security of energy supply.
Since gas can perform many of the same services as coal, a flood of cheap shale gas in the USA made coal uneconomic to mine. Abrupt closure of coal mines ensued. Since coal (unlike gas) is traded globally with a single market price, the impact was not restricted to the USA:
The Scottish opencast coal sector was almost entirely wiped out in 2013. By New Year 2016, not a single deep coal mine of any size will be operating in Britain.
Gas is not all about heat and power: it is a key feedstock in the manufacture of a vast array of commodities, from fertilisers through plastics to pharmaceuticals. Alternative feedstocks are not yet obvious. Meanwhile the continued availability and affordability of these goods is a prime concern for everyone – not least the poor.
Shale gas may not offer an ideal solution to our energy needs. But banning it makes neither economic nor environmental sense.
Prof. Paul Younger was appointed Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow in 2012.
He also chairs the Global Scientific Committee of the Planet Earth Institute, an international NGO which promotes the cause of sustainable development in the countries of the Global South.
He had previously spent 20 years at the University of Newcastle where he founded and led the HERO research group, established the Sir Joseph Swan Centre for Energy Research and founded and directed the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability.
The UK Shale Energy Conference 2015 was held last month in Glasgow.
Visit the Scottish Energy Association (our organising partner) website for views, photos, videos and presentations; www.WeAreSEA.com
See also: –
England steps on the (shale) gas with new £30m test drill programme, while Scotland stagnates – http://goo.gl/zEOloq
SNP’s Westminster Energy spokesman sets out the Five Fracking Tests for UK shale gas sector – http://goo.gl/s3qoVm
When Scotland’s shale energy industry led the world – http://goo.gl/BE2wub
Shale and Safety: get the fracking facts right from the Royal Society of Edinburgh – http://goo.gl/BMO6Xp