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Will ‘Green’ Politics Block Britain’s Shale Gas Bonanza?

Recently, Cuadrilla Resources announced the discovery of 200 trillion five trillion cubic meters of gas near to Blackpool in Lancashire.

Though the amount of gas actually recoverable would be a far less (likely ranging from 10%-20% of that number), the impact of the discovery would nevertheless be significant.

One trillion cubic meters is approximately 15 years of total U.K. gas supply, or 40 years of liquefied natural gas imports.

However, whilst news of the discovery was exciting proponents of unconventional gas development, Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, was addressing member of his Liberal Democrats party, telling them that we must halt the “dash for gas.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Christopher Booker noted that Huhne even “cited approvingly an absurdly mendacious propaganda film produced by US global warming zealots vilifying shale gas.”

It’s Got to Be Green or Its Got to Go

Britain faces a huge future energy shortfall with half of its coal-fired power stations and all but one nuclear facility currently supplying 40 per cent of average electricity needs scheduled to close by 2023.

Many would view the Lancashire discovery as being material in addressing this future energy needs and in possibly providing significant economic benefits to economy.

But others view shale gas as irrelevant or even as a threat to the developed of “renewable energy.”

Britain has committed to the EU to generate nearly a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020, much of that targeted to be produced by wind turbines.  However, none of the current deployable renewables involve “standalone” energy technology; each megawatt of renewable energy has to be backed up by a megawatt of gas power on standby.

But as Booker writes, future energy policy cannot be based on building thousands of wind turbines:

Huhne clearly doesn’t begin to understand is that the more turbines we build, the more we will need new gas-fired power stations of the same capacity, just to provide instant back-up for all those times when there is insufficient wind to feed more than a derisory amount of power into the grid.

Alan Riley, professor of law at City Law School in London points out that doesn’t mean that the development of wind and solar energy would be undermined by cheap gas production.

Riley says that building a much larger base of gas-power stations actually enables further development of renewables.

The CO2 Debate

Natural gas has been viewed as a more environmentally friendly fuel, producing less CO2 than oil or coal per tonne of fuel burnt.

But both sides of the debate are putting forth arguments that paints a picture that suits their favoured proposition.

Environmentalists point out that this argument does not take into consideration the leakage of methane and the “lifecycle impact” of shale gas development, which they say would have a worse impact on future climate change than burning coal without carbon capture and storage.

Secretary Huhne is focused on meeting Britain commitment under the Climate Change Act to cut CO2 emissions by 80 per cent within 40 years.

“We will not consent to so much gas plant so as to endanger our carbon dioxide goals,” said Huhne.

However, Professor Riley points out that substantial shale-gas development could even work to reduce the EU’s CO2 emissions if it replaces “dirtier” technologies like coal.

He points to a recent report produced by McKinsey for the European Gas Advocacy Forum that suggests increasing the load factor of existing gas-fired power stations.

A power station’s load factor is a measure of its actual output compared to the maximum potential power output it could produce. Most gas-fired power stations in Europe currently operate at a load factor of 45%. By using more gas and increasing the load factor to 65-70%, it will be possible to shut off an equivalent amount of coal-fired power stations and cut CO2 emissions by 250-300 million tons annually.

This is not insignificant; total CO2 emissions from all solid fuels in the EU come to about one billion tons of CO2 annually. Such cuts might now be achieved without spending a public penny. To achieve a similar cut in CO2 emissions through renewable technologies, EU member states would have to spend between €80-120 billion in annual subsidies, according to the McKinsey report.

As Riley points about, the real barrier to wider deployment of renewables is not gas, but fiscal austerity, both by governments and by consumers.

Deploying gas-fired power stations cuts CO2 and keeps open the option of installing renewables atop the base of gas-fired power stations when the economy improves and governments and consumers can afford it.

While many consumers would welcome the impact of cheap, plentiful gas on their pocket book, others, such as Kevin Anderson of Manchester University, worry it will lead to an increase in overall energy use.

“From a climate-change perspective this stuff simply has to stay in the ground,” says Anderson.

However, if learned senior politicians like Huhne can bring the debate down to a clip of flaming tap water as shown in the movie Gasland, (irrespective of the scientific evidence and explanation provided to the contrary), then this perhaps best illustrates the greatest challenge that unconventional gas development faces today in Western Europe.

Natural Gas Europe, 3 October 2011