ANALYSIS: The UK fracking facts

A British protest against shale-gas fracking

A British protest against shale-gas fracking

There was little room for subtlety in the coverage of yesterday’s UK energy announcements – and unsurprisingly the new shale-gas "resource estimate" garnered the least nuance of all.

Most media outlets would either have the public believe that this “dash for gas” is a looming environmental catastrophe, or that shale gas represents a game-changer for the country's energy supplies.

Neither is true, as the government understands very well. And for renewables, the impact of this announcement, or any likely to emerge in the foreseeable future, will be negligible.

It is true that fracking itself potentially carries adverse environmental consequences: tremors, methane leakage, groundwater contamination and other nasties.

Yet few of the disasters predicted for the US sector have materialised yet. And there is little reason to think that the UK sector – sure to be more tightly regulated, and with the benefit of the American experience to draw upon – will be any worse. In all likelihood it will be significantly better.

On the power-production side of the ledger, burning gas for electricity certainly releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Yet the improvement it offers over coal is one that many green groups write off too quickly.

While carbon emissions fell sharply last year in the US, they rose by 3.5% in Britain. The main reason, acknowledges Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, is that shale gas has made coal uncompetitive in the US, so coal producers there are shunting their output to UK generators.

By any measure, gas is all but certain to play a big role in UK energy supplies in the decades ahead – alongside renewables. And there is no compelling environmental argument why the supply should come from Pennsylvania or Qatar or even Norway, instead of from the UK.

Indeed, with more hydrocarbon production occurring in the UK – and onshore, no less – energy issues will surely play a larger role in the public debate in the years ahead, and the renewables sector should seize that opportunity.

Finally, in terms of the economics, it is hard to imagine UK shale-gas production will move the needle for renewables in any way, at least for the foreseeable future.

While the government is keen to show that it is doing something – anything – to boost the economy, the figures released yesterday are only a “resource” estimate.

The amount of commercially recoverable shale gas will be a far smaller number, and one the government has no immediate plan to release. Even in the most bullish scenario, significant commercial production is years off.

Asked whether he was “excited” when he first saw the new shale-gas estimates, Michael Stephenson of the British Geological Survey, the scientist trotted out by the government, said: “I did think [the new figures] were quite large. But then I hadn’t seen how thick the shale was yet. These are very thick layers,” he added, making any comparison with the US nearly impossible.

One interesting element of the announcement was the financial package the shale-gas sector has offered to local communities – £100,000 ($152,000) for each exploratory well and 1% of revenues from production.

While the onshore wind sector has improved greatly in the way it engages with communities, it is critical that it is even more engaging, more generous, with shale gas creeping into the picture.

Renewable energy already has an enormous lead over shale gas in the UK, and by the time commercial shale production takes off – if it ever takes off – the lead will be yawning.

Should that lead one day be surrendered, much of the blame will deservedly fall on the renewables industry itself.

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