A lot has been made of George Osborne's support for shale gas and his opposition to renewables. Central to the narrative is the idea that he is stopping the development of low-carbon energy because he doesn't want to burden consumers and businesses with higher energy prices. However, there is an argument that gas is central in the UK's transition to a low-carbon economy.
Coal-fired power stations emit twice as much CO2 than gas-fired ones. Simply put, coal is far more polluting than gas. If all coal-fired energy was switched to gas tomorrow, there would be a notable and instant reduction in the UK's CO2 emissions. So, if we're talking strictly in terms of CO2, and we accept that in the short-term we are unable to switchover to, and rely upon, renewables and nuclear, then gas is essential to taking carbon out of our energy production.
Shale gas does, however, come with its own environmental issues. The process of drilling into the ground and using fluids to drive gas deposits out of rocks will never be as environmentally benign as harvesting electricity from the wind or sun. Reasonable fears include the creation of minor earthquakes and the pollution of the water table with all the environmental destruction that goes with it. Proponents of fracking say that the UK has much higher regulatory standards than the US, where many were shocked by the revelations of flaming taps and poisoned water shown in the film Gasland.
To its credit, Cuadrilla, presently the only fracking company in the UK, has been transparent and worked closely with regulators and civil servants in its endeavours. It stopped work immediately after some earthquakes were felt in Lancashire, cooperated fully with authorities and openly funded independent research to understand the issue fully.
The alternatives to shale gas are not environmentally neutral. Nuclear energy brings with it inherent risks and, although those risks are very low, when failures have occurred they have had harrowing outcomes. Moreover, nuclear is very costly and, in the wake of Fukushima, its costs are increasing.
Renewable energy, generated from the wind, sun and water, also has a complicated environmental impact. Hydropower stations typically require the building of dams which always affect local ecosystems. Newer barrage systems require less reshaping of the landscape, but may also affect local marine habitats. Wind farms, whether onshore or offshore, also have local effects although the extent and nature of these is heavily disputed. Solar panels are probably the most benign source of renewable energy in terms of local impact, however, production of the panels is now heavily China-centric so a lot of carbon is emitted to bring them over to the UK.
Despite strong growth and the subsidies it has received over recent years renewable energy is not, and will not in the short term, in any shape to become a main contributor to the UK's energy needs. A similar problem exists with nuclear power - creation of the next generation of nuclear power plants in the UK has all but stalled.
The opportunity for gas, sourced from shale rock, is timely. It will not eliminate carbon emissions but can meaningfully reduce them. It won't require a consumer levy to fund subsidies and it can be sourced in the near term. The harsh reality is that, even when you factor in the environmental risks, fracking could be the best short-term solution for the UK's energy needs.
We have stalled for too long on nuclear and have not given sufficient support to the development of renewables. Time has been wasted and the impacts of past decisions cannot be changed. The only pragmatic solution to our energy needs is to endorse fracking in the short-term, while simultaneously removing the obstacles and uncertainty that hinder renewables and nuclear. Natural gas may not provide the green energy of the future, but it can provide the green energy of today.