Shale gas exploitation by fracking on a significant scale in Britain “is not compatible with the UK’s climate change targets” unless strict emissions criteria are met.
That’s the verdict of a report published today by the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
The CCC’s report has been sent to UK energy secretary Amber Rudd advise her on the implications of exploitation of onshore petroleum, including shale gas, for meeting UK carbon budgets.
And the report finds that “the implications of UK shale gas exploitation for greenhouse gas emissions are subject to considerable uncertainty – from the size of any future industry to the potential emissions footprint of shale gas production”.
It also finds that exploitation of shale gas on a significant scale is not only incompatible with UK carbon budgets, but is also a poor fit with the 2050 commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80 per cent.
It goes on to say that fracking will only become compatible with these goals if the following three tests are satisfied:
Emissions must be strictly limited during shale gas development, production and well decommissioning. This requires tight regulation, close monitoring of emissions, and rapid action to address methane leaks.
Overall gas consumption must remain in line with UK carbon budgets. The production of UK shale gas must displace imports, rather than increase gas consumption.
Emissions from shale gas production must be accommodated within UK carbon budgets. Emissions from shale exploitation will need to be offset by emissions reductions in other areas of the economy to ensure UK carbon budgets are met.
However, the report states that “at this early stage, it is not possible to know whether the tests will be met easily or not”.
The committee states that it will monitor steps taken by the government and other agencies to satisfy these tests and it will report publicly on performance against the tests.
In addition, the Committee will assess the Government’s forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan – which will set out how the Government will meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets – in light of the possible development of a UK shale gas industry.
Professor Jim Skea of the CCC said that “under best practice, UK shale gas may have a lower carbon footprint than much of the gas that we import”.
“However, gas is a fossil fuel wherever it comes from and is not a low-carbon option, unless combined with carbon capture and storage.”
Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, welcomed the report.
“The Committee on Climate Change is right to suggest there are strict limits on methane leaks from the extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas as well as restrictions on gas consumption and carbon output imposed on any UK shale gas project,” she said.
“Sites must be closely monitored by both the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure environmental impact assessments are carried out and appropriate well depth and integrity is maintained.”
She explained that the ImechE recently reported that the regulatory framework for well integrity in the UK was shown to be robust and comprehensive, and added that “we must ensure that this continues to be the case post-Brexit”.
“Shale gas is not a silver-bullet solution to meeting the UK’s future energy demands,” she added, “but has a role to play in a diverse and balanced energy portfolio which also includes nuclear, renewables, demand side management and storage. UK shale could make a helpful contribution and help protect the UK from the volatility of the global energy markets.”
Dr Baxter said that shale gas has the potential “to contribute to securing energy supplies and creating much-needed jobs… particularly in a time of uncertainty around markets, investment and supply”.
She said the government and industry must “work to help change public perceptions of shale gas to convince the public that fracking is safe”.
But Greenpeace chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said that “the idea that fracking can be squared with the UK’s climate targets is based on a tower of assumptions, caveats, and conditions on which there is zero certainty of delivery”.
“We know that the government is resisting putting in place policy and regulations needed so that fracking can pass the three climate tests that the Climate Committee is recommending. The problem with ramping up a whole new high-carbon infrastructure and the fossil fuel vested interests to go with it is that you can’t just dial it down later on if emissions start going through the roof.”
He said the government “now faces a clear choice between promoting this climate-wrecking industry in the face of strong opposition or honour the Paris climate deal and back clean, home grown, reliable renewable energy and smart technologies instead”.