Monday, 7 April 2014

Caroline Lucas, Green MP: "It's not that fracking itself is necessarily worse than ordinary gas extraction"

An interview in the Guardian with Caroline Lucas, the UK Green Party's only MP, makes for interesting reading. She's currently awaiting trial for her role in the protests at Cuadrilla's Balcombe drilling site.

She has some interesting comments about shale gas development in the UK:
For Lucas, the big problem with fracking has nothing to do with the risk that it will cause earthquakes, contaminate the water table or pollute the soil. In fact, she thinks it possible that stringent regulations could minimise those risks. "It's not that fracking itself is necessarily worse than ordinary gas extraction. It's the fact that we're just about to put into place a whole new infrastructure for a whole new fossil-fuel industry, at exactly the time when we need to be reducing our emissions." The problem, in other words, is climate change.
I've long been of the opinion that, at the upper levels of various NGOs and political groups, the primary opposition to shale gas is derived from a the climate change angle, not local pollution. The scare stories about earthquakes and pollution are a stalking horse for the real issue. Climate change concerns are unlikely to mobilise local support in any significant way, hence the need to exaggerate local impacts in order to foment local opposition. It's refreshing that Caroline Lucas has come clean about this.

She also accepts that we will continue to burn gas in this country for some time to come:
Some environmentalists argue that shale gas is the obvious answer to our energy needs, until we've worked out how to power the country with renewables. Lucas accepts that we do need gas to tide us over, "but I would prefer to keep importing it from Norway, for example, because it will be easier to turn that tap off than it would be to dismantle an entire new industry that we had deliberately incentivised."
So it seems that Caroline Lucas and I are mainly in agreement. Shale gas extraction doesn't pose any particular risk beyond that common to all forms of hydrocarbon extraction, with which we are very familiar with in the UK. Moreover, we will continue to burn gas in this country. Our only point of difference is where that gas will come from.

The UK currently imports 40% of our gas, and without domestic shale production this is expected to increase to 75% by 2030 as the North Sea runs down. This will cost us over £15 billion per year, money lost to the UK economy, paying no tax, creating no jobs, instead funding an air-conditioned world cup in Qatar and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. I believe that we should keep this £15 billion/yr in the UK, creating jobs both directly and in the supply chain, and paying taxes to the UK government, by developing a domestic shale gas industry. Caroline Lucas believes we should give £15 billion/yr to Qatar and Norway.

The final issue is whether a domestic shale gas industry would hamper the development of renewables? Evidence from the USA has shown that this is unlikely to be the case. Texas, home of the shale gas boom, is also one of the top states for wind energy, and renewable energy chiefs have sung the praises of the shale boom as beneficial to the growth of the renewables industry. Renewables are intermittent, meaning they need flexible backup systems. Gas turbines are the most flexible and responsive method of electricity generation, so coping with renewable intermittency becomes easier if gas supplies are cheap, secure and abundant.

Moreover, the development of renewables is primarily dependent on subsidy and support from government. A government losing £15 billion/yr to pay for gas imports is less likely to be in a position to offer support and subsidy than one sitting on an economy boosted by shale development. We've already seen how our current subsidy levels, which in truth are fairly meagre, have become so politically unpopular as the economy remains sluggish and energy bills rise.

I've discussed before how, in political terms, people who support shale extraction oppose renewable development, and vice versa. This has given the impression that the two technologies mutually exclude each other. In fact, they can be made to work together hand-in-hand.


  1. Interesting points - but I would prefer to hear your views if focused more specifically on addressing CF's central points and its implications re reducing emissions and climate change: i.e. the starting up (then lock-in & associated inertia) of a whole new ff infrastructure industry connected with politicians who have a vested interest in maintaining dividends etc from ffs and resisting the clean green alternatives which are the future, (and are even financially threatening to ffs as e.g. Swanson effect etc meaning solar & c.g.renewables costs per unit energy decreasing while ff extraction costs increasing as conventionals deplete).

    The implics re climate change is that fracking/CBM/UCG - though within UK may displace higher emissions coal & LNGgasimports (though maybe hardly at all as will go to highest bidder), on a global scale will ADD TO total emissions, because extracted unused coal and higher emissions LNG gas will be burnt elsewhere (as happened when US shale gas shifted US coal onto global market reducing its price so more coal got burnt elsewhere incl in UK). Without a global carbon emissions cap, based on us having to leave 75 to 80% of existing reserves in the ground to maintian Trise within 2degs, such global displacement rather than replacement is likely to continue. Thus on a global emissions scale of rationale - starting up a new unconv gas industry should be a non-starter.

    Your last paragraph is maybe just an idealistic hope for the UK if you consider the political connections CL's excellent insight explains (& shown graphically by WDM's Carbon Capital fossil fuel web of power infographics). These mean that supporting the fracking web of power inherently means slowing up the better alternatives and action against climate change. (e.g. fracking indirectly hinders political incentive for action to insulate houses to reduce gas use and thus reduce demand for fracked gas).
    Alternatives favourable to our climate is the priority, not expanding another ff.

  2. I see Caroline Lucas goes against Green Party policy on fracking. which gives the usual exaggerated guff about environmental concerns

  3. Hi Henry,

    With regards to the effect of fracking on climate change and global emissions, I won't go into the whole schaboodle on that as it's far to big for a comments section. I do have some leave coming up, so I may take up JVs offer of a guest post on that then.

    But while I've got your attention, I have a question for you which has been puzzling me, and i'd like your thoughts on:

    The argument that producing these lower emission fossil fuels can only add to the global emissions total rests on the incomplete displacement of higher emission fossil fuels in the market (coal and seaborne LNG in this case). So my question is, How did you come to this conclusion, and what your estimate of the actual displacement is: 1%, 10%, 50%, 90%, 99%? Obviously that figure must have a large influence on the argument.


    1. Good Q - it would indeed be useful to have a better idea of the actual global-scale displacement-v-replacement figures (by displacement I mean being shifted to be burnt elsewhere in the world [i.e. not a zero-sum game globally]; by replacement I mean not displacement [i.e. the zero-sum game we would like for ff-burning - i.e. below a global budget cap]. My argument is based on 1. example of US fracked gas >>> US coal that would have been burnt in US gets exported to be burnt elsewhere (but don't have figures quickly to hand), 2. the displacement argument is put forward by people with better expertise than me who I respect - such as Mike Berners-Lee in his excellent co-authored book "The Burning Question", and economics rationale. I'll inform such people of this debate and see what they think: see what figures come up.
      There are of course the other added arguments such as: - lock-in then inertia of a new ff industry, - inextricable political, financial (& economic) connection and association of expanding fracking with decreasing political will and investment confidence into clean green alternatives.

    2. The question we have to ask here is whether we in the UK should be held responsible for the decisions of other countries?

      We can only make decisions in our own country, and those decisions should be to do what is required to balance the energy triumvirate (low carbon, secure and reliable supply, affordable) within our sphere of influence (i.e. the UK).

      Those in other countries are welcome to follow our example. But if they do not - i.e. if they continue to burn coal because it is available for a cheaper price due to displacement - then I do not see why the British consumer should be held to ransom for their behaviour.