Shale gas is boosting America’s economy and reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. It could have a similar effect here.
It has long been a lament of British governments that North Sea oil is running out, and with it energy independence and revenue. So the discovery of potentially vast reserves of shale gas in England must have struck the Chancellor as something of a miracle. The extent of shale gas is thought to be 17 times the remaining known reserves in the North Sea. With the latest advances in the technology, the coalition’s decision to lift the ban on fracking to exploit shale gas is understandable.
Shale gas exploration is at an early stage in the UK. But if it proves to be even half as successful as it has been in the US, shale gas could make a significant contribution to energy security and job creation. It would reduce reliance on imported gas, and coal, and help to keep the lights on as old power plants fall due for closure.
This does not make it uncontroversial. Environmentalists are concerned about the possible pollution of groundwater and air, because of the process by which fracking blasts sand and water at rocks. There are also fears about tremors, fuelled by two mini-earthquakes near Blackpool. Although there is as yet no evidence that seismic activity is increased by fracking — and the US by now has considerable experience in this regard — operators will have to monitor seismic activity very closely. The technology has advanced considerably in the past four years: fracking is cleaner and less intrusive in the landscape than it was. Nevertheless, the Government must still satisfy itself that the technology is safe for the particular geology of the UK.
There is a bigger question about climate change. Will a move towards gas detract from attempts to reach a low-carbon world that must be fuelled partly by wind, solar and nuclear? The answer is, not necessarily.
In climate change terms, the two biggest threats to the planet are the burning of trees, which act as carbon sinks, and the burning of coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel producing the highest greenhouse gas emissions. If the world continues to burn coal deposits at the current rate, it will be almost impossible to keep planetary temperatures from rising more than 2C above 1990 levels — the official UN limit beyond which there is a substantial scientific consensus that the world could see dangerous global warming.
In this context, gas could prove to be an excellent transition technology between dirty coal and low carbon technologies. The use of shale gas has led to a fall in America’s greenhouse gas emissions, as power stations switch away from coal. As a result, America’s carbon dioxide emissions from generating energy have fallen by more than any other country in the past five years. In 1997 coal accounted for almost half of America’s electricity generation; now it is closer to 35 per cent.
So despite refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and declining to set EU-style targets for renewables, the US is moving faster to curb emissions than Europe. Poland is burning substantial amounts of coal. The recent closure of nuclear plants in Germany in the wake of the Fukushima disaster has increased German exploitation of coal, despite its being a country where green politics play a significant role. And Britain is now producing more electricity from coal and less from gas than it was a year ago, partly because shale gas production in the US has pushed down global coal prices. The lifting of the ban on fracking in the UK holds out hope for reversing that trend.
The discovery and exploitation of shale gas changes the global energy equation in several ways. It is clear that the world ultimately needs a package of energy technologies, including energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear power. But shale gas could help to stem climate change for a little while longer — and create jobs too.