Clear climate risks linked to fracking, scientists told UK government

Report last September said investments in Carbon Capture and UN climate deal needed to mitigate shale gas effects

(Pic: DECC)

(Pic: DECC)

By Ed King

What a difference a week makes.

Last Wednesday UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned Parliament of the links between extreme weather events and climate change. He was speaking as parts of the country lay submerged under water, with flood defences having been breached by a series of storms and heavy rains in the past month.

Today he issued a gung-ho statement claiming the country was “going all-out” for shale gas, promising financial backing to local councils who promote drilling.

His energy minister Michael Fallon toured the TV and radio studios, describing shale as “a very green type of gas” and dismissing concerns over pollution. “Fracking will only take place if it’s absolutely safe…and no risk to the environment,” he told BBC Radio Sussex, adding there is “no risk to environment from escaping methane gas”.

The comments raise further questions over a government that once promised to be the ‘Greenest Ever’, but now seems reduced to bribing councils to drill for gas.

Climate risk

Fallon’s remarks on methane contradict a 2013 report by Professor David MacKay, the energy department’s Chief Scientific Advisor, and Dr Timothy Stone, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State.

Warning that methane has a global warming potential 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, they recommended further research be conducted to “reduce uncertainty associated with estimates of local methane emissions from shale gas operations and also to guide the optimisation of regulatory monitoring.”

They also emphasised that ‘cumulative global emissions of carbon over all time’ is the key figure regarding global warming, highlighting the impact of any new fossil fuel investments in driving rises in the world’s temperatures.

“If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run,” they say.

“This increase would work against global efforts on climate change. This potential issue is not specific to shale gas and would apply to the exploitation of any new fossil fuel reserve.”

The authors add any new drive for shale should be matched by investments in Carbon Capture, negative emissions technologies and further efforts to secure a global climate change deal under the UN.

“International agreements could be put in place that ensure (through carbon prices or other mechanisms) that the cumulative emissions of carbon over all time are capped,” they say, calling for a “clear need for systems thinking in this area”.

While many observers argue that climate risk should determine the level of backing the shale industry receives, there are other factors that require further analysis.

In the past year RTCC has run stories over birth defects linked to drilling, earthquakes near sites in Ohio, and water contamination near shale exploration areas in Texas. Some of these may be coincidence or innocent mistakes from companies. Others indicate an industry which has a profound disregard for regulations.

We also covered the fierce protests in the West Sussex village of Balcombe, where a variety of activists blockaded an entry road to a shale-oil plant, forcing the firm to stop work. Further efforts to slow drilling are on-going at sites in Manchester.

Local groups may decide the health risks are too great for them to accept drilling rigs. Or they may look at recent floods and decide there is a link between extreme weather and climate change.

Mixed blessing

That’s not to dismiss shale gas as part of the global energy mix. Discoveries in the USA have played a major role in weaning the country off coal and placing it on target to meet its 2020 climate targets.

According to the UK report cited above, shale gas has a lower carbon footprint than Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), one of the world’s fastest growing sources of energy. And shale has also seen US energy bills fall, and according to a study by consultants IHS benefitted the economy by around $2000 per household.

The economic benefits for the UK appear clear.  French oil major Total announced they will invest $21m in UK operations, encouraged perhaps by British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present in the north of England.

Cuadrilla chairman Lord Browne recently dismissed claims shale could reduce UK domestic gas prices, but it could cut the country’s reliance on imports from Qatar.

Industry insiders say their investment could yield six month’s supply. Others are likely to follow, perhaps encouraged by UK councils facing further budget cuts of 2.9% from 2014-2015.

The chance to earn just under £2 million per fracking site will be tempting for councils and local communities. But the clear message from the government’s scientists is that the global risks of exploiting shale gas need to be addressed first.

In this instance Cameron and Fallon appear to have jumped the gun, ignoring the effect of rising carbon emissions on the planet. Many observers may pay less attention the next time the Prime Minister warns about the consequences of climate change.

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