What Lord Lawson didn't tell you about shale gas

24 January 2012

That charming Lord Lawson feller was on the Today programme this morning harping on about the potential of shale gas to bring cheap, practically limitless fuel to the hearths and hobs of the nation. Hooray, eh?

No. Three things.

First, we are not America. Shale-gas-huggers are going cockahoop about what’s happened over in the States, where there’s been a meteoric rise in the production of shale gas. In just five years the USA has gone from getting five per cent to nearly a quarter of its total gas production from shale. As a result the USA is now self-sufficient in natural gas, and the following things have happened: the gas price has fallen; investment in renewables has dropped; and the global gas market has noticed, with extra supplies of gas that would have been destined for the states being flogged off cheap.

Big stuff. But can that happen here? Almost certainly not, in any meaningful way anyway, for at least 15-20 years. An excellent blog from Carbon Brief summarises why. In a nutshell, the USA has a lot more open space (“MAMBA”) to whack in prospecting rigs; their shale deposits are closer to the surface and therefore cheaper to get out; and due to what the Economist calls the “Dick Cheney effect”, they have a – shall we say – ‘more charitable’ approach to the regulation of the gas industry than we do.

Witness the recent outcry after earth tremors in Blackpool caused by gas ‘fracking’ in Lancashire, and you get a hint of the problems that are in store if we go for unrestrained gas nabbing in our densely populated islands. There’s growing evidence of water contamination too, on top of the burning-water stuff revealed by films like Gasland. Indeed it’s this that’s really behind local protests and the shale moratoriums that have been imposed in France and Bulgaria.

The second problem with shale gas is, like ‘normal’ gas, it’s really bad for climate change. Worse in fact: work is being done to get a precise handle on the extra emissions caused by the escape of methane during the shale gas drilling process.

But as research from the Tyndall Centre shows, the real problem is gas full stop: burning just a fifth of what Cuadrilla Resources claim to have found under Lancashire would produce 14 per cent of the UK’s entire permissible carbon budget to 2050.

There isn’t the emissions space available for the UK, or indeed the world, to go gung-ho for gas. Gas is cleaner than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel. How can we have runaway gas use whilst also avoiding devastating climate change? We can’t. Not unless carbon capture & storage technology seriously steps up its game - but it’s flailing badly, both here and internationally.

This is a logical brick wall which ought to be plotted in by the markets. It isn’t. Scenarios like those from the IEA or BP which predict a ‘golden age of gas’ based on ever growing demand are compelled to point out - in BP’s candid words – the “inescapable conclusions” for climate change.

A report brought out last week by the Carbon Tracker Initiative pointed out that some 80% of the fossil fuels being held on to by major companies is effectively worthless (James Murray from Business Green correctly labelled these investments little more than “junk”) because it can never be burned. Adding to that via shale doesn't make a whole heap of economic sense in the long-term.

All of this assumes, that is, that the world is serious about stopping the environmental, humanitarian and economic lunacy that climate change would bring.

Oh, and the third thing? On Today, the BBC neglected to mention that Lawson isn’t just a cuddly avuncular old rogue who was once Thatcher’s Energy Secretary, but is instead the mouthpiece of a lobby group, the funding of which is a sinister mystery and which is convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that man-made climate change is a fiction. The Global Warming Policy Foundation – for it is they – are the rapscallions behind the slew of economically and statistically bunk renewable energy bashing guff that appears fortnightly on the front page of the Daily Mail (I blogged about this last month). 

Bit of a relevant fact that.

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