I am neither for, nor against, the exploitation of Britain’s shale gas. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I think the issue is more complicated than the way it was put by Chris Huhne in The Guardian this week.
There’s the question of whether shale gas is a lower carbon fuel than coal. There have been two studies by Cornell university which contradicted each other, one showing that shale gas had higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal, the other that the emissions were half.
This matters. Firstly, there’s James Hanson’s argument that to prevent dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to take all the fossil fuels out of the ground. Therefore it makes sense to leave those with the highest carbon content, which means leaving the unconventional oils and coal. So the difference between a carbon content higher than coal and one half of coal, is the difference between leaving it in the ground, and exploiting it.
The level of emissions also affects the viability of using CCS, that is carbon capture and sequestration. In his article Chris Huhne advocates the use of CCS with shale gas. So far, pilot CCS projects such as the one at Sleipner seem to be showing that CCS is possible but expensive. It is only economically viable for fuel sources with relatively low CO2 content (at Sleipner the natural gas has 9.2%), and in combination with a carbon tax. So, if shale gas actually has higher emissions than coal, then it is probably not viable, even with CCS.
Chris Huhne’s article did not mention the question of water use and possible pollution of aquifers. Possibly he accepts the reassurances of the energy industry on this issue. Personally, I don’t know who to believe. On the one hand, I accept that the campaign against shale gas in North America is characterised more by hyperbole than hard facts, but I’m equally skeptical about the statements from the energy industry.
What concerns me most is the way we seem to be rushing to exploit our shale gas reserves. It’s not as if the gas is going anywhere, and getting this decision wrong could have serious environmental effects for the UK. I’d like to see a slower and more considered approach; preferably a public enquiry to report on the viability of exploiting the reserves, economic, environmental and otherwise.