Lord Browne: fracking is ‘not going to go away’ in the UK

Cuadrilla chairman and former BP chief says shale gas can help UK meet climate targets and boost energy security

(Pic: BBC Andrew Marr Show/You Tube)

(Pic: BBC Andrew Marr Show/You Tube)

By Sophie Yeo

Fracking is here to stay, according to the chairman of the UK’s leading shale gas company.

Defying a summer of setbacks and angry protests, Lord Browne, former BP chief and now head of oil and gas exploration company Cuadrilla, told RTCC: “We’re in this for decades, so we’re not going to go away.”

For Browne, one of the world’s foremost experts on the energy industry, drilling for gas is now a “national imperative” – one that will ensure Britain’s energy security and generate economic growth, while at the same time as reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal.

Some disagree so furiously that it has landed them in court. Protesters interrupted exploratory drilling for shale oil at Balcombe in southern England last year, which led to over one hundred arrests, including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of splitting open the shale rocks deep beneath the ground in order to release the small bubbles of gas that were previously inaccessible. It has been widely used in the US, and is now making tentative steps into Britain, with Lord Browne at the helm.

Shale debate

Despite the divisiveness of his mission, Browne is in no doubt: shale gas is good. The debate, he says, has been fired by myths and misinformation, rather than any problems with the technology, which he says continues to improve.

“Getting campaigns based on getting the information sorted out, rather than getting opinions sorted out – I think that’s quite important,” he says.

And while he appears willing to acknowledge shale discoveries will not send UK gas prices plummeting, he’s keen to push fracking as a means of cutting the UK’s overall carbon footprint.

“A lot of that carbon is tied up in coal and we want a lot of the coal to stay in the ground, so we’d like to find lighter hydrocarbons to go on a ‘carbon diet’ if you will,” he says. “That’s why we have to keep exploring for gas. There’s no doubt about that.”

Some suggest this line of argument is disingenuous. American coal consumption has declined since shale gas began to boom, but this has not led to an equivalent drop in production.

Instead, America’s hefty coal supplies have been exported to other countries. And while UK coal production fell to an all-time low of 17 million tonnes in 2012, the use of coal to generate electricity soared to its highest level since 2006.

And while shale gas is cleaner than coal, it still releases significant levels of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the primary cause of global warming.

Beyond Petroleum?

Green groups say the UK should firmly back renewable forms of energy instead of relying on another fossil fuel, citing the potential of wind, solar, tidal and bioenergy to meet the country’s needs.

Browne evidently has some faith in clean energy. His company Riverstone Holdings is one of the world’s largest renewable energy funds. But he’s adamant there is an excessive faith in the ability of renewables to match the firepower of coal, oil and gas.

“I think that this debate about shale gas here in the UK started on the basis of ‘Surely we can do it all with renewables?’ and we can’t. We just can’t. That was the debate, and I think it was set up in an unrealistic way.”

If this sounds a familiar charge that’s because it’s a view shared by Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently promised the UK would go “all out for shale”.

Even Lord Deben, chair of the influential Climate Change Committee recently said some environmentalists were close to “Trotskyites” in their opposition to fracking.

But where Browne perhaps differs from his former colleagues at BP is that he does see an increasingly significant role for clean energy in the near term.

Renewables, he says, “have to be able to compete with gas without subsidy, or with the same subsidy, so we need to further improve technology, and I see no reason why we can’t do it.

“The fact that solar cells have become 80% cheaper over the recent past – why can’t they become 80% cheaper again? Wind turbines have become much cheaper, they’ve become much more efficient – why can’t we do that again? The answer is we can.”

Energy evolution

While chairman of BP, he attempted something of a rebranding crusade: British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. The old green and yellow shield became the now familiar flower logo—or, as the website describes it, “a sunburst of green, yellow and white symbolizing dynamic energy in all its forms”.

“When I started this, I was heading the only oil company in the world that was prepared to talk about climate change. Now everybody does,” he says. “That has changed things.”

Browne says he remains convinced of the need for a global carbon market to price emissions so that businesses have a real incentive to cut their emissions, but is scornful about the proliferation of pilot schemes in China that emerged last year

The Guangdong trading scheme, launched at the end of December, is the second largest after the European Union’s own troubled marketplace.

But in the end, he says, it is not about schemes: “it’s about decisions, leadership”, and he says that the consensus is still lacking for a strong carbon pricing programme to be implemented.

What is really needed, he says, is a rational debate—”and that won’t be helped by people creating super scare stories,” he says. “People will say ‘It’s all too difficult right now, so I won’t handle the future.’”

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