Fracking: The monster we greens must embrace3/15/2013
Most environmentalists are in no doubt. The new technology of fracking to extract shale gas from the rocks beneath our homes is both a nasty neighbour and a sure recipe for climate Armageddon. Not only that, fracking was pioneered in the US, the gas-guzzling land of climate sceptics.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, uses high-pressure water to shatter shale rocks and release natural gas lurking within. The gas is then piped to the surface. Shale rocks are widespread. But fracking requires lots of water; the toxic sludges brought back to the surface can cause pollution; and the extraction has even triggered minor earthquakes.
However, I can't bring myself to condemn it. These drawbacks mean there are plenty of places where fracking would not be a good idea, especially in crowded Britain. But that is different from the blanket ban that most environment groups demand.
Their case is that the last thing we need as we fight climate change is more natural gas. Because gas, like coal and oil, is a fossil fuel. Burning it releases carbon dioxide, which traps solar radiation and heats the atmosphere.
Climate scientists believe we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions globally by 80% by later this century to halt global warming. All the evidence suggests they are probably right; so I am sure that ultimately we have to pretty much banish all fossil fuels. Luckily there are plenty of low-carbon alternatives from wind and solar power to – sorry to bring this up – nuclear energy. But does that mean we should ban shale gas?
The thing is, fossil fuels differ. Coal is uniquely nasty. But burning natural gas produces only half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. So shale gas could be part of the solution to climate change, rather than part of the problem.
Take the US. From a standing start a decade ago, it now gets more than a quarter of its natural gas from shale. Production is so cheap there that shale gas is replacing coal in power stations; and as a result its carbon dioxide emissions are the lowest since 1992. Low energy prices are even encouraging the manufacturing of some goods to return from China, where they were mostly made using coal-fired energy. What's not to like?
Perhaps we should cheer Lord Browne, the boss of Cuadrilla Resources, Britain's only shale gas driller, who said this week that he will invest "whatever it takes" to make shale gas a big source of British energy. Such grand plans are causing alarm in the shires. In the villages around Blackpool in Lancashire, they fear a repeat of the tremors generated by fracking almost two years ago. And from the Mendip Hills in Somerset to the coastal communities of east Kent, opposition is growing to drilling.
But Browne, former boss of the oil giant BP, believes that shale gas – if properly regulated to protect local environments – can prevent the runaway growth in carbon dioxide emissions – seen especially in the developing world – and break the link between economic growth and climate change.
The global stakes are high. Right now, despite all the posturing by governments at UN climate talks, coal is the fuel of the age. It may be the dirtiest, but its share of world energy supply rose from 25% to 30% in the past half decade. China and India are in the forefront of the dash for coal. But supposedly green-minded Germany is building new coal-fired power stations to fill the gap created by its post-Fukushima decision to shut down all its nuclear plants.
Environmentalists should have no higher priority than to shut off that surge. In his recent book, The Carbon Crunch, the Oxford environmental economist Dieter Helm made the case to banish coal and embrace shale gas. He says that in a world where most people choose the cheapest source of energy, gas is the only serious pretender to King Coal.
Is he right? Of course, any sensible environmental argument for shale gas can only see it as a stopgap. Helm and others argue that we must redouble our investment in improving renewables. But they say that, while those technologies are scaled up and priced down, shale gas is a vital "bridging technology" that can reduce our emissions over the next couple of decades – something all agree is essential to meet long-term climate targets like limiting global warming to two degrees.
This is seductive. But the danger is that shale gas becomes the next monster. The problem is what John Schellnhuber, the former director of Britain's Tyndall climate centre and now climate adviser to German chancellor Angela Merkel, calls the "lock-in dominance" of fossil fuels. Part of this is infrastructure lock-in. Once built, all those mines and drilling rigs and power stations will inevitably be used until they rust away. But it is also a mindset. Helm may believe that rational people will pursue renewables with gusto, while at the same time developing shale gas as a bridging technology. But the real world may not be like that.
And Helm has to look no further for evidence of this than to one of the people he advises: George Osborne. The chancellor wants to grasp the benefits of gas, but he also wants to banish wind turbines. He can't see a case for embracing both.
The big danger is that, whatever its short-term attractions, shale gas ends up providing a green defence for continued fossil fuel lock-in. It may, as Helm says, have the potential to cut emissions in the first half of this century. But it could also, as environment groups stress, slow down the change we need in the longer run.
Maybe a clean break with fossil fuels is right, after all. But I don't think the case is clear-cut. And I find it sad that in most of the environment movement there doesn't appear to be the willingness to have a public discussion on the pros and cons of shale gas.
Perhaps it is just too dangerous. The last environmental leader who proposed shale gas as a bridging technology was Carl Pope, director of the US's Sierra Club. He was hounded out of office for his pains.
(Fred Pearce/The Guardian)