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Fracking – A Price Worth Paying?

Our dependence on a constant supply of energy to keep the economy’s wheels turning and the lights on at home presents seemingly intractable dilemmas. Where do we find the resources we need and, in exploiting them, what kind of balance should we strike between cost, security of access and environmental protection?

In the US, the recovery of underground reserves of shale gas and its extraction from solid rock through the technique of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is well established and makes a significant contribution to energy needs and costs there. While the technology is less developed and considerably more controversial in the UK, major fields have been identified in the north of England, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere and companies are keen to exploit them. The Government believes that shale gas could provide a ‘bridge’ to a low carbon future and plans to make it easier for businesses to explore and drill.

A number of scientific studies have concluded that, subject to proper regulation, fracking can be justified on health, safety and environmental grounds. But opponents, including environmental groups and communities close to proposed fracking sites, continue to argue that fracking is the wrong priority and that energy companies should be investing instead in renewable energy development.

Two leading scientists in the field take up the debate.

Professor Paul Younger

University of Glasgow

Paul Younger was appointed Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow in 2012. He had previously spent 20 years at the University of Newcastle where he founded and led the HERO research group, established the Sir Joseph Swan Centre for Energy Research and founded and directed the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability.

He also served as the University’s Public Orator and its first-ever Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement.

His current research is focused in the energy sector and in particular on geothermal energy, responsible use of fossil fuels and hydropower.

Professor Younger has a wealth of industrial experience, including with Yorkshire Water, the National Rivers Authority, NIREX, Northumbrian Water and various consultancy missions worldwide.

He also chairs the Global Scientific Committee of the Planet Earth Institute, an international NGO which promotes the cause of sustainable development in the countries of the Global South.

The School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow has been delivering world-class engineering education and research for more than 150 years, providing fully-accredited undergraduate degree programmes in all the major engineering disciplines.

Research is undertaken within five research divisions and postgraduate degrees provide continuing professional development in response to global industrial and governmental needs.

Professor Kevin Anderson

University of Manchester

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester.

He is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Professor Anderson engages widely across all tiers of government from reporting on aviation-related emissions to the EU Parliament to advising the Prime Minister's office on Carbon Trading and contributing to the development of the UK's Climate Change Act.

With his colleague Alice Bows-Larkin, his work on carbon budgets has been pivotal in revealing the widening gulf between political rhetoric on climate change and the reality of rapidly escalating emissions.

Professor Anderson has a decade of industrial experience, principally in the petrochemical industry. He is also a member of the Welsh Government's Climate Change Commission and a Director of Greenstone Carbon Management.

He publishes widely, including recently in Royal Society journals and Nature.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, based at the University of Manchester, brings together scientists, economists, engineers and social scientists who are working to develop sustainable responses to climate change.

The Centre works not just within the research community but also with business leaders, policy advisors, the media and the public in general.


Misunderstood - but a key role to play in our fuel strategy

The furore over shale gas fracking has generated far more heat than light.

As a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer with thirty years’ experience of both protecting ground water from pollution (especially by mining) and remediating such pollution where it has already occurred, I have watched in horror as my area of scientific expertise has been grossly misrepresented in the public row over shale gas. I made a few interventions to try to correct glaring conceptual errors, but was met with hate-mail and a death-threat for my troubles. My Twitter account was so overwhelmed that I had to close it.

Having served on two government-requested expert review panels on the topic (one UK, one Scottish) I am satisfied that shale gas could be developed onshore in the UK in a safe and non-polluting manner. The mature UK regulatory systems are more than capable of accommodating an activity which is far less challenging than many others we routinely manage already. To argue otherwise requires you to believe that practices which have long been outlawed in the UK will nonetheless somehow be implemented in the case of shale gas – despite the minute scrutiny the sector is under. I don’t believe that.

Yet the main reason that the debate has got so heated is that this is precisely what did happen in the USA.

The bizarre pork barrel politics of the USA allowed this in the form of an Act of Congress sponsored by then Vice President Dick Cheney who was also a VP of Halliburton, one of the largest oilfield service companies worldwide. Every US Vice-President is conventionally allowed to put one pet Act through Congress unopposed and Cheney chose one which would exempt shale gas from most environmental controls.

Once people had been given the impression that shale gas could only be developed by abandoning basic and well-established pollution prevention procedures, they reasonably assumed that it must be horrendous. The shale gas companies were too busy enjoying their bonanza to bother with public engagement. Social media ensured that the worst scare-stories crossed the Atlantic long before the first well was mooted. Nevertheless, the first movers in the UK failed to recognise the necessity of early and genuine public engagement - and the result is the bitter public debate we have today.

To my mind the real shale gas debate is whether indigenous sources of gas have a place in wider public policy. Climate change strategy is clearly central. Since gas has roughly half the carbon emissions of coal, replacing coal with gas can play a valuable transitional role in decarbonisation.

Fuel poverty is also a key consideration. In my city, the poorest live in tower blocks with electric heating. When we replace this with gas-fired district heating, fuel poverty diminishes markedly.

Moreover, 82% of UK households are reliant on gas for heating and hot water and replacing this in short order would be a herculean task which I have seen no political party even suggest. Until we have a means of doing that without greatly exacerbating fuel poverty, we will continue to use gas in great quantities. If we import it via pipeline or tanker, its carbon footprint goes up significantly - and that’s before we even consider cost, the geopolitics of dependency and the poor human rights records of the gas-rich states waiting eagerly for our business.

Then there is the issue of power-grid balancing to cope with increasing penetration of intermittent renewable generators, for which gas-fired turbines are the lowest-carbon technology available at scale. My research focuses on finding affordable alternatives with a lower carbon footprint. I have to report that we are as yet nowhere near rolling out any such alternative. Were we recklessly to abandon gas anyway, I suspect no government would survive the ensuing blackouts and hypothermia pandemic.

So indigenous gas production feels like the least-worst option for simultaneously addressing climate change, fuel poverty and security of energy supply.


A blight on the poor and the planet

When the next typhoon batters the coastal region of a poorer nation, the number of families dislocated, the infrastructures damaged and the crops destroyed will all have been exacerbated by the 20cm rise in sea level that our emissions of carbon dioxide have already triggered. Climate change is the lived reality of many millions of people today, people with little responsibility for the increase in emissions but who nevertheless suffer the consequences.

Fossil fuels, whether coal, oil or gas, emit large quantities of carbon dioxide when combusted. Shale gas is no different. In all practical terms it is simply natural gas comprising (by mass) 25% hydrogen and 75% carbon.

Wrestling any hydrocarbon from the ground is an inevitably messy, noisy and periodically dangerous and environmentally destructive process. Shale gas is no exception. Extracted carefully, the impacts and risks will be similar to any well-regulated hydrocarbon operation. But however ‘clean’ the extraction, once combusted the carbon emitted will change the climate for many decades and centuries to come.

Science can only advise on the parameters of what’s dangerous; defining it is ultimately a political undertaking. Over many years the international community has established that an increase in global average temperature of 2°C by the latter part of the century is the ‘appropriate’ threshold between acceptable and dangerous levels of climate change.

But such a global average masks huge regional variations, linked to droughts, floods etc. Not surprisingly, the political horse-trading that defined 2°C favoured the rich, powerful and high-emitting nations at the expense of our poorer, low-emitting and more vulnerable neighbours.

So whilst wealthier governments may be broadly satisfied with the 2°C obligation, many others see it as a death sentence and argue for a maximum of just 1°C or perhaps 1.5°C of warming. But, on climate change as with much else, however cogent their arguments, the cries of the weak and vulnerable go unheard.

Acknowledging that 2°C already condemns many to dangerous levels of climate change, what does science tell us about how much carbon can be emitted for a “likely” chance of staying below this threshold?

Here the science is clear: we have a global carbon budget of around 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that we can emit from energy, land-use and industry between 2011 and 2100. Given that we’ve already emitted around 15% of that budget in the first four years, even if our estimates of emissions from land-use and industry are optimistic, we're left with just 650 billion tonnes to be emitted from all sources of energy between now and 2100.

Dividing this rapidly dwindling carbon budget between all nations demands such deep and early reductions in emissions that shale gas, at least within the wealthier nations, can have no significant role to play. The maths and timeline are that clear: if we’re not to renege on our explicit 2°C commitment, there is no emission space for a post-2020 shale gas industry. Even if the elusive promise of large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is realised, shale gas with CCS will still have lifecycle emissions of carbon that are too high for it to have any meaningful part in our energy future.

Hydrocarbons powered the industrialisation of the twentieth century but not without bequeathing a latent climate change legacy to the twenty-first. The UK benefitted more than most from industrialisation but at the cost of disproportionately high emissions.

We live in a very wealthy and highly educated nation with a world-leading portfolio of renewable energy opportunities. We have all the resources and tools necessary to become a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. What we have thus far lacked is the innovative thinking and courage to conceive of such a future – one in which shale gas remains in the ground, not least as a symbol of our genuine commitment to future generations and the preservation of our unique planet.


There is little I disagree with in Kevin’s analysis.

Although gas is helping to relieve fuel poverty in Glasgow, I concur that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest. I agree we are in great peril of reneging on the commitment to a 2°C maximum global average temperature rise and that this means “there is no emission space” for new hydrocarbon industries.

But given that we are likely to renege, we will need a plan B.

Kevin states that “fossil fuels, whether coal, oil or gas, emit large quantities of carbon dioxide when combusted” and that “shale gas is no different”. While strictly true, this masks the crucial point that gas is far more hydrogen-rich than coal (~5% hydrogen to 95% carbon by mass, excluding other elements) and that gas therefore has about half of the carbon emissions of coal.

So while ceasing all atmospheric emissions from fossil fuels is the ultimate goal, we need to be clear that, in the meantime, it is far better to use gas than coal.

The lack of such clarity has misled Germany into abandoning gas (and low-carbon nuclear) in favour of lignite - the worst carbon emitter of all fossil fuels! Surely it makes more sense to use the lowest-carbon fossil fuel - which is indigenous, onshore gas - while we continue the political battle and redouble the search for alternatives?

The latter is crucial: Kevin seems uncharacteristically complacent when he claims that we already have the tools we need. His dismissive remarks about CCS are a case in point: the Boundary Dam project shows the technology is practical but without a global, binding price for carbon emissions it will not be delivered at scale. The same is even truer of less-developed renewable technologies: for on-demand electricity, transport fuels and heat - i.e. most of our energy use.

Until we meet these challenges, shale gas surely has a role to play in responsible energy policy.


Paul offers five principal arguments for exploiting UK shale gas.

First, I agree that the US is a poor analogue for the UK’s more robust regulatory regime and had noted that a well-regulated shale gas industry will have impacts comparable  to other well-regulated hydrocarbon extraction. I agree too that climate change is key in deciding on the future of shale gas.

But the argument that gas is better than coal because it has lower emissions only holds if the coal it replaces remains in the ground. In a globalised energy market this will seldom be the case. More specifically, the phase-out timetable for the UK’s coal-fired power stations leaves little scope for shale gas to substitute for coal. So Paul’s argument is misleading and irrelevant to the UK.

Nor does his argument that it will help with fuel poverty bear examination. No reputable analyst, including the Cuadrilla CEO, envisages that shale gas will significantly reduce UK gas prices.

I agree that it would be a “herculean task” to move away from gas, but immeasurably less so than that forced on poor and geographically vulnerable families facing dangerous levels of climate change, exacerbated by high-carbon shale gas.

Paul concludes that failing to exploit UK shale gas reserves would be “reckless”. But it’s our prolonged failure to address high-carbon addiction that’s truly reckless. UK consumption-based emissions, (including imports and exports), are the same today as they were in 1990.

Moreover, the failure of a wealthy UK to address its indigenous fuel poverty is also reckless. Trading off the lives of the poor and climatically vulnerable elsewhere in the world against hypothermia amongst the UK’s poor is deeply divisive.

The pursuit of another fossil fuel represents a sticking plaster over gangrene – masking a far more profound problem. It is the role of academics to diagnose our “reckless” failures and prescribe effective remedies: shale gas is simply another snake oil.


Kevin wrongly ascribes two statements to me. First, I never claimed that UK shale gas exploitation will lower regional gas prices in north western Europe: I simply pointed out that, at existing gas prices, replacing electrical heaters with gas-fired district heating is already alleviating fuel poverty in my city.

Neither did I argue that “failing to exploit UK shale gas reserves would be ‘reckless’ “. I actually argued that it would be reckless suddenly to abandon the use of gas - from whatever source - until we have affordable, scalable, lower-carbon alternatives for domestic heating and on-demand power production.

It is in this context I am puzzled by Kevin’s claim that “the phase-out timetable for the UK’s coal-fired power stations "leaves little scope for shale gas to substitute for coal”. Two of the UK’s largest coal-fired plants (Longannet and Ferrybridge) will close in March 2016, with the remaining plant increasingly being converted to burn imported wood chips.

However, there is little scope to expand this significantly given the low energy-density and high costs of wood chips. Gas offers the only obvious, large-scale alternative which can be deployed in time to arrest the declining security and quality of power supply in the UK.

When the penny finally drops, government will intervene and remove the perverse obstacles to new gas-fired stations arising from the illogical grid connection pricing algorithm used by National Grid. In the meantime, clusters of inefficient diesel engines are being connected to the grid. This is our equivalent to the German ‘dash for lignite’ and it must be reversed quickly if we are to avoid escalating CO2 and particulate emissions from our electricity system.

I am also puzzled that Kevin doesn’t believe that the shale gas boom has left coal unmined. Try telling that to the miners currently being made redundant from Thoresby and Kellingley collieries. Since gas can perform many of the same services as coal, a flood of cheap shale gas in the USA made coal uneconomic to mine. Abrupt closure of coal mines ensued. Since coal (unlike gas) is traded globally with a single market price, the impact was not restricted to the USA: the Scottish opencast coal sector was almost entirely wiped out in 2013. By New Year 2016, not a single deep coal mine of any size will be operating in Britain.

Gas is not all about heat and power: it is a key feedstock in the manufacture of a vast array of commodities, from fertilisers through plastics to pharmaceuticals. Alternative feedstocks are not yet obvious. Meanwhile the continued availability and affordability of these goods is a prime concern for everyone – not least the poor.

Shale gas may not offer an ideal solution to our energy needs. But banning it makes neither economic nor environmental sense.


Whilst there are a range of nuanced differences between Paul’s and my assessment of shale gas, the principal disagreement stems from our differing starting positions. Paul’s argument is premised on two central assumptions: first, that the international community will renege on its 2°C commitment and, in heading for a 3°C to 5°C rise, the UK’s exploitation of high-carbon shale gas is preferable to burning still higher-carbon coal; second, that the UK’s current phase-out of existing coal power stations will be reversed.

I share Paul’s view that it is “likely” that global emissions will exceed the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets – but it will be an explicit choice to fail and not an immutable rule of physics, politics or economics.

The pursuit of another hydrocarbon within the UK, a wealthy nation with world-leading potential for renewable energy and huge scope for energy efficiency and conservation, will obliterate our reputation as a vociferous advocate for tackling climate change. It makes a liar of the UK.

Our repeated commitment, to which the PM is a signatory, is for the UK to play its role in limiting the “increase in global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, consistent with science”. The uncomfortable reality is that pursuing UK shale gas is tantamount to signing the death warrant for some of the world’s poorest and most climatically vulnerable citizens. Rather this, it seems, than we face the formidable but manageable challenges of putting the UK’s emissions on a 2°C mitigation pathway!

Paul’s assertion that shale gas will substitute for coal is a simple expedient. If the UK pursues a shale gas industry, it will not produce significant gas until post 2025, by which time coal use within the UK will have all but ceased, be rapidly dwindling or possibly include carbon capture technology. Any remaining coal that is substituted will likely further subdue the international market price for coal and consequently support its role as the fuel of choice for rapidly industrialising nations.

Shale gas will generate electricity with emissions per kWh typically 40 times higher than renewables or nuclear. Even with carbon capture technologies, emissions will still be over 10 times higher. The IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets combined with weak equity criteria and some basic arithmetic clearly demonstrate that a UK shale gas industry cannot be reconciled with our 2°C commitments.

We are left with a clear choice. We can take the difficult but necessary domestic action to radically reduce our high emissions in line with our 2°C commitments. Or we can proceed with shale gas and North Sea oil, whilst scattering conscience-salving pennies amongst those poor communities reaping the grim repercussions of our fossil-fuelled hedonism.