Shale gas could help UK hit carbon targets

By Nilima Choudhury

Shale gas could play a part in the UK hitting its carbon targets, according to an energy analyst.

On Thursday, scientists at the British Geological Survey (BGS) estimated that there is likely to be approximately 40 trillion cubic metres (1,300 trillion cubic feet) of shale gas in the ground in the North of England, double previous estimates. This would make it by far the biggest shale basin in the world.

Shale gas development is in its early stages in the UK. (Source: flickr/eschipul)

Shale gas “could contribute to” the UK hitting its carbon target “because it burns cleaner than coal and it might replace some coal-fired generation, if the price of shale gas is lower than that of coal,” Claudia Belahmidi, an analyst at IHS Energy told RTCC.

“It definitely has a very high potential but it’s much too early to say whether that potential can be materialised.”

A government statement said: “A key role for gas is also consistent with the need to decarbonise our economy. It is the cleanest fossil fuel, and much of the new gas capacity needed would effectively be replacing ageing coal.”

Shale gas development is in its early stages in the UK, but there are already 176 licences for onshore oil and gas exploration currently issued.

With the UK set to miss its carbon target for 2018-2022 the government is proceeding in the footsteps of the US in the hope fracking can cut carbon emissions and help it back into the good books of NGOs and climate change lobby groups. They are also concerned with water pollution, gas leaks and tremors, which were not addressed in the government’s statement on shale development released with the BGS estimates.

The US example

The “energy revolution” appears to have been successful in the US, where CO2 levels have fallen dramatically.

By 2012, the US achieved approximately 70% reduction in CO2 levels. A major factor in the CO2 emission reduction was shale gas, which, with the continued displacement and retirement of coal plants, has the potential to provide even more CO2 reduction benefits in the future, claims Forbes.

According to an IHS Global Insight report, shale gas currently accounts for approximately 37% of total natural gas production in the US compared with just 2% in 2000.

Dr Robert Field from the Air Quality Research Group at Wyoming University identified that the number of drill rigs in the US far outnumbered the amount in Europe therefore the UK should not expect the same results as experienced by the States.

The high cost of operating in the UK also acts to set it apart from the US. “The likelihood of large scale developments remains uncertain,” said Emma Wild, head of KPMG’s upstream advisory practice.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that the amount of shale gas that has been discovered could even be extracted for use.

“While the estimated increase in shale gas reserves published by the Geological Society is certainly encouraging news, it is important to remember that this refers to technically recoverable volumes and not to commercially recoverable gas from shale,” said Wild.

Public acceptance

Several associations are in agreement that the discovery of higher levels of shale gas than expected is good news for energy generation in the UK although they advise that shale gas should be used in conjunction with renewable sources and with as little disruption as possible to the lives of the communities where drilling will take place.

“We accept the role of shale gas as long as the public wants it and the climate can handle it. Without carbon capture and storage it can never be truly low carbon in the same way as renewables, so from a climate perspective it should not be allowed to substitute for renewables in the energy mix,” James Beard, spokesperson for the REA told RTCC.

The government intends to work with local people to see through its plans for exploratory drilling.

To garner local support the gas companies will offer a package of community benefits including £100,000 for communities situated near exploratory wells and 1% of revenues from every production site.

“This is not a game changer,” warns the Committee on Climate Change. “Any role should be part of a balanced approach to investment in a portfolio of low-carbon technologies. This is needed to manage the risks that we face and to build a resilient energy system.”

Jenny Banks energy and climate change specialist at WWF-UK said: “Governments worldwide must face up to the fact that getting every last drop of fossil fuels out of the ground, often at considerable cost to the local environment, is completely incompatible with tackling climate change.

“A move towards more drilling makes neither economic nor environmental sense.

“If this Government was taking climate change seriously,” said Banks “it would be concentrating on providing certainty for low carbon investors by including a decarbonisation target in its current Energy Bill rather than luring shale gas industry with tax breaks.”


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