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 nohotair.co.uk 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.