Following the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announcing new tax incentives for shale gas exploitation, it was a disappointment but no great surprise when, in December, the Energy Secretary Ed Davey gave approval for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas to resume.

Shale gas is conventional gas (methane) recovered by an unconventional method. The gas is trapped in pockets of rock. It is released by drilling a well and injecting fracking fluids: water and a number of chemicals, predominantly sand, biocides and friction inhibitors. The fluid blasts open fissures in the rock, releasing the gas. A well can be repeatedly fracked over an average production life of seven years. Once production ceases the well should be plugged.

The prospect of a new domestic source of fossil fuel has revealed a concerning lack of Government commitment to renewable alternatives. High profile reports of fracking-induced earthquakes near Blackpool hit the headlines in 2011. Numerous unanswered questions remain about the health effects of emissions from extraction – the Health Protection Agency is undertaking a review of the evidence but has yet to report – and its effects, if any, on pricing in a European market where gas is traded to the highest bidder. It’s the potential climate effects of shale gas, however, where much of the uncertainty lies, and many of the arguments made in the media obscure rather than clarify the issue.

Supporters argue gas is less carbon intensive than coal and could help the UK reach its Climate Change Act targets of an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050. This argument looks like a red herring now the, disappointingly high, Emissions Performance Standards (EPS) proposed in the Energy Bill prevent construction of power plants emitting more than 450g/kWh CO2. At this level, the EPS effectively precludes coal-powered electricity from the future energy mix unless, or until, carbon capture and storage becomes a proven technology. 

Davey has suggested domestically produced shale gas is preferable to conventionally obtained imported gas. In climate terms it’s hard to judge. Contrary to general belief, little if any UK imported gas comes from Russia. The majority travels either via pipeline from Norway or is cooled to −160°C and shipped in liquid form from Qatar: itself an energy hungry process. However, methane is a greenhouse gas with a short term global warming effect far greater than CO2. Shale gas is known to leak into the atmosphere during fracking- so-called fugitive emissions- but the degree of leakage is variable between wells and impossible to predict. Alongside this, the collection and treatment of flowback fluid from fracking has its own energy, and hence carbon, implications.

In any case, while gas may be lower carbon than coal it is not low carbon. A recent International Energy Agency report assessed the climate change effect of a global shift to gas from oil and coal as consistent with a 3.5°C rise in average global temperature, well above the widely agreed 2°C target. For Government to pursue finite sources of shale gas in preference to genuinely low carbon renewable energy options is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change.

Fracking activity thus far has concentrated on Lancashire but petroleum exploration development licences have been granted across the UK. If you’re interested in climate change and the need to de-carbonise our energy system, then consider getting involved in Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign. Birmingham FoE, in conjunction with the University of Birmingham’s People and Planet Society, are holding a question time session entitled: ‘Energy we can all afford’ on Tuesday 19th February, from 7pm at the University Guild Council Chambers. Everyone is welcome.