Sunday 1 September 2013

Shale must be careful who its friends are

Wherever you read a media report on shale gas these days, it will inevitably be described as 'controversial'. While Nick Grealy at pulls out his hair over what is media hype rather than sound science, there can be little doubt that shale has a public image (or at least a media image) problem.

This cuts deeper than the deep greens camped outside Balcombe making outrageous claims that the water there is already poisoned, or that 2 recent earthquakes in the Irish Sea were due to fracking. A wider, more rational concern is that shale "is just another fossil fuel, locking us into a fossil fuel future". I work in a geology department: most of my colleagues are geoscientists, while some study climate change. In general, when they ask me about shale gas, their questions are not about water or earthquake risks, but about climate change.

This concern arises, in part, because of who the public sees as the main cheerleaders for shale gas. In recent weeks, we have seen the case for shale gas being made by the likes of Lord Lawson, Lord Howell (he of the "desolate north-east" comment), George Osborne and the like. Whatever actual views they might hold, the public do not see them as people who can be trusted to put environmental issues before financial gain.

Is it a surprise then, that with protagonists such as these it is difficult to convince the public that shale gas extraction could actually be a good thing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? Shale should be careful who its friends are.

Instead of hearing from Messrs Lawson, Howell and Osborne, perhaps we should hear more from the Environmental Defense Fund, who have realised that rather than getting themselves arrested for protesting about shale gas outside an limestone-oil-drilling operation, which is a bit silly, the productive thing to do is to work with the industry to ensure that the benefits of shale are maximised, and any negative impacts are minimised.

Perhaps we should hear more from the likes of Transition Dorking, an environmental group prepared to consider the benefits of shale.

Will shale gas extraction lock us into a fossil fuel future? Perhaps we should hear more from the State of Texas, the undisputed home of shale gas. Texas is also one of the leading states for renewable energy generation (mainly from wind), trailing only the rainy and mountainous (and therefore ideal for hydroelectric) Pacific Coast states. Texas is the wind capital of the US (perhaps it's all the fantastic BBQ food).

This boom in renewable energy development occurred simultaneously with the shale gas boom. It may just be coincidence. However, in the current absence of efficient and large scale energy storage options, the ability of gas turbine power plants to provide quickly-dispatchable power has been crucial in coping with wind intermittency.

The economic benefits provided by shale development are no doubt helpful as well - a state with decent finances is surely more likely to be prepared to spend more in developing renewable energy. We like to say that we should be investing more in renewable energy. Well, to invest, you need to have money to spend.

Texas shows us that shale gas development need not crowd out renewable developments (and in fact may be beneficial). However, our current government is seen to be very pro-shale, and somewhat ambivalent to renewables, hence the public concern in this regard. I think the government is missing the chance to show that it is committed to both, and that they can work together.

Despite recent announcements of tax cuts to stimulate early development, the exchequer can still expect to take a lot of tax from shale gas extraction. Why not declare that a certain portion of that tax take will be ring-fenced, to be spent only on research, development and demonstration of alternative energy options (be they renewable, next-gen nuclear or fusion)?

That, in my view, would be the ideal path to take - showing that the government doesn't view shale as the be-all and end-all, but a necessary step on the path to a better future, and that there's more to shale development than is presented by Howell, Lawson et al.


  1. You say that the public do not see Osborne and Lawson as people who can be trusted, but you surely mean "left-wing members of the public" think this. There are a lot of people of a Tory persuasion, who presumably hold Osborne in high regard. It may not seem that way from inside the ivory tower, but there is a big world outside, and even people of different political views.


    1. I can't counter the Ivory Tower accusation, uni life can certainly get that way sometimes. Lawson and Osborne are not the most popular here (although we should probably give Osborne a little credit for keeping the science budget relatively untouched).

      I guess my point wasn't necessarily about trust per se, but about priorities. The idea that we can prevent human activity from impacting the environment is nonsense - there are too many humans, wanting to live in the manner to which we have become accustomed - not to have any environmental footprint. Lets face it, even primitive hunter gatherer societies managed to hunt the woolly mammoth into extinction.

      With that as a starting point, there is a balance to be found between environment and economic development. This becomes a question that goes beyond science: science can help to say what the impact of a particular activity might be, but it is society that decides whether that it is a price worth paying.

      We all, as individuals, have our own point at which we make this balance. I don't think there's a "correct" answer in this regard. My intention was to suggest that the perception of Osborne, Lawson et al, even among conservatives, is that their balancing point leans further toward the economic than the environmental. Hence the perception that shale is economically good but environmentally bad, and hence the "controversial" status.

      In the great trade-off between environment and economy, the balancing act is made easier by technologies that can minimise environmental impact while maximising economic gain. The point of my piece above is that shale has the potential to do this.

    2. In fact, looking at a global level rather than a UK level, the only real reason to develop shale gas is in fact an environmental one. If we want to produce as much electricity as cheaply as possible, and to hell the environmental consequences, then coal is the way to go. Coal, of course, is damaging to mine (far worse than shale gas development), damaging to burn (soot, NOx, SOx emissions) and damaging from a climate change perspective (CO2).

      But it is cheap, and there's still plenty of it in the ground around the world, hence it is the fuel of choice in India, China, Russia, Poland, and even in the UK where it still currently makes up 40% of our electricity mix. I don't know whether, outside of the USA, shale gas will ever be cheaper than coal. The motivation to produce shale gas, on a global level, is because it represents an environmental improvement, not an economic one.