It’s a sick political irony that at the same time as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a final call to save the world from climate catastrophe, fracking has started in England.
Throw in plans for a third runway at Heathrow, cancelling all subsidies for solar, an almost complete absence of policy to promote energy efficiency, the effective banning of onshore wind, a massive road building agenda, and the appalling impact that Brexit may have on the UK’s ability to fight climate change, and you have to wonder who it is this government are representing.
We all know there is a real challenge around transitioning away from the existing energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels. But it is a specific obtuseness that this government is making that job even harder by encouraging the establishment of a whole new fossil fuel industry in the UK around shale gas. Scientists are very clear that of the fossil fuels that have already been discovered, at least 80% has to be left in the ground. So why on earth would we go looking for yet more of the stuff?
There is also one key area that has been overlooked with fracking: methane.
Most of the focus in the discussion around climate change is on carbon dioxide, and for good reason. But there is a very serious issue with methane that isn’t getting nearly enough attention. It’s concentration in the atmosphere has rocketed in recent years.
The problem is that while methane doesn’t linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. In the first two decades after its release, methane is thought to be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
What’s caused this huge spike? Well, a good chunk of it is thought to be coming from tropical wetlands emitting more methane as the planet warms. But, there is also a question about whether there is a link to shale activity in the United States. A Harvard study showed that since 2002 there was a 30% rise in methane across the country, with peaks coinciding with the shale oil and gas boom.
When methane emissions are included, it could be that the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is larger than that of conventional natural gas and coal. Politicians like our own Climate Minister Claire Perry are utterly wrong when they talk about fracking producing “clean” energy.
The very best you could say about shale gas is that it’s the equivalent of shifting from a high-tar to a low-tar cigarette when your doctor has told you to give up smoking completely, and immediately.
Some think fracking is needed to reduce foreign imports of gas. But research from Cardiff Business School shows that for it to reduce just half of our gas imports, over 6,000 wells would need to be drilled across England in the next 15 years. And that means a huge infrastructure of pipes to distribute the gas, and that means there could be methane leakage.
If we’re serious about fixing climate change, if we are to pay any regard to the new IPCC report around the fast closing window of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming, then we need fracking like a hole in the head.
The governmental love affair with fracking defies science and reason. It’s purely ideological, originally driven by George Osbourne who saw something happening in the United States and concluded that it must be good thing. Despite repeated attempts to promote fracking to the British public, support for shale gas has plummeted over the last 7 years.
This government has comprehensively lost the argument, and that’s why the only way it can make fracking happen now is to change the planning rules to force it on local communities that don’t want it via the back door; by allowing drilling to take place as permitted development – without the need to apply for planning permission. This is a loophole originally designed to make it easier to build conservatories or throw up a garden shed, not drill for oil and gas.
One day soon society will see attempts to frack in Britain as the last-gasp, death-throes of a tired, old oil and gas industry that just doesn’t know when it’s time to fade into history. They’ll put fracking, Heathrow, road-building together and note that the Conservative government of 2018 comprehensively lost its way on climate change, at just the moment when it needed to show leadership and fix it. It can be done. But the clock is ticking.
Craig Bennett is chief executive officer (CEO) of Friends of the Earth