Shale gas production will break the UK’s climate change targets unless there is stricter regulation now, according to the government’s official advisers.
More action to cut carbon emissions in other areas would also be needed to cope with full-scale fracking, despite the government already struggling to meet existing commitments.
But the government says it will take no regulatory action in response to the report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), arguing that the current regime is “adaptive” and will change if fracking companies go into full scale production.
It says it is important to take advantage of the “fantastic opportunity” of fracking and that it is determined to meet its carbon targets.
David Cameron has said the government is “going all out” for fracking, which ministers argue can boost UK business and reduce the nation’s reliance on imported energy. But plans to frack in Lancashire and Yorkshire have attracted large protests from campaigners concerned about potential pollution, disruption and health impacts.
On Thursday, campaigners applied to the high court for a judicial review of North Yorkshire county council’s recent decision to allow fracking exploration. Ministers will decide the fate of the application in Lancashire, which the county council rejected, by October.
The CCC report, published on Thursday, concluded that shale gas production on a significant scale would breach the nation’s targets for emissions cuts unless three tests are passed.
First, strict regulation is needed to ensure leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are kept to a minimum. Second, shale gas must replace imported gas, not be burned in addition. Third, emissions from the production of shale gas itself must be offset by more carbon cuts elsewhere, such as increasing the number of electric vehicles.
The report found that fracking regulation today is below the “minimum necessary” to meet the first test: “It certainly requires that a strong regulatory framework is put in place now.”
Prof Jim Skea, at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the CCC report, said: “We need stronger and clearer regulation. UK environmental policy allows quite a lot of discretion to the regulator and, depending on how things develop, it would be necessary to be more precise if you are to regulate emissions effectively.
“Existing uncertainties over the nature of the exploitable shale gas resource and the potential size of a UK industry make it impossible to know how difficult it will be to meet the tests.”
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) July 7, 2016
An official from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said: “We believe our strong regulatory regime and the government’s determination to meet our carbon budgets mean those tests can be and will be met.
“We have a very well developed but adaptive regulatory system which allows regulation to grow with the challenges it faces.”
Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and Tory leadership candidate, said: “Shale gas is a fantastic opportunity, which could create thousands of jobs and a secure homegrown energy source that we can rely on for decades to come. We’ve already put measures in place to limit and monitor emissions that meet the conditions set out in this report.”
Fracking is largely regulated by the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. An official from the EA said: “It is a flexible approach, so as techniques get better, we require the best available techniques to minimise and monitor emissions and we are confident we can regulate the industry effectively.”
The CCC said a single regulator might be needed to oversee fracking, as did a 2012 report from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. But the Decc official said this would not happen “for the foreseeable future” and “is not in general an approach the government usually favours”.
Meeting the UK’s legally binding climate targets will be more challenging and potentially more expensive with a significant fracking industry, the CCC found, especially without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to trap and bury emissions. The government cancelled a £1bn CCS programme in November, and without CCS, the nation’s gas use will have to fall 80% by 2050, compared with 50% with CCS.
Fracking results in emissions not only when the gas is burned, but also from the operations needed to extract and transport it. These could be 11m tonnes a year in 2030 of CO2 equivalent, 3% of the nation’s entire emissions.
“You would need to do other things to offset these emissions,” said Skea. But the CCC warned in June that the government had no policies in place to meet more than half the emission cuts required by law by that date. Ministers have promised a plan to plug this gap by the end of 2016.
Labour’s Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, said: “The CCC report lays out three fundamental tests [but] the government has decided to do precisely nothing to increase protection for the public or to deliver security for our climate targets. On this basis, it is currently neither safe nor reasonable to approve any fracking in Britain.”
But Prof Averil Macdonald, chair of the fracking trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas, disagreed: “Today’s report confirms what we have long maintained – that shale gas production is compatible with the country’s need to reduce emissions.
As an industry, we look forward to continuing to work proactively with regulators to minimise fugitive emissions from our operations.” She said that with North Sea production declining, there was considerable room for shale gas to replace imported gas.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, said: “The idea that fracking can be squared with the UK’s climate targets is based on a tower of assumptions, caveats and conditions on which there is zero certainty of delivery. The government now faces a clear choice between promoting this climate-wrecking industry or backing clean, homegrown, reliable renewable energy and smart technologies instead.”