Report says that exploiting just one-fifth of Lancashire’s shale gas reserves would put carbon emissions targets out of reach
The UK will fail to meet its climate change targets if industry and politicians back controversial new plans to go ahead with widespread drilling for shale gas, according to a report published on Wednesday.
About 2tr cubic feet of natural gas trapped in dense shale rocks is estimated to lie beneath Lancashire according to Cuadrilla Resources, the main shale gas company operating in the UK. Further exploration in Wales, Scotland and other parts of England could add substantially to this total.
But burning it for fuel results in large-scale carbon dioxide emissions, and scientists from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, in a report commissioned by the Cooperative Group, warned that exploiting even a minor proportion of this gas would generate so much carbon dioxide that the government’s greenhouse gas emissions targets would be rendered unreachable.
Exploiting even one-fifth of the Lancashire shale gas reserves alone would produce about 15% of the total carbon dioxide that the UK can produce between now and 2050, if government targets are to be adhered to. Those targets state that CO2 emissions are to be cut by 80% by 2050.
Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre, at the University of Manchester, said: “The government faces a difficult choice – to lead a new and low-carbon energy revolution or stick with high-carbon fossil fuels, forgo its emission targets and relinquish its hard-won international reputation on climate change.”
Proponents of shale gas say it could cut emissions by displacing higher-emitting fossil fuels such as coal, and could increase the UK’s energy security by providing a “home-grown” source of gas, even as the UK’s reserves in the North Sea are rapidly running out. Cuadrilla estimates that shale gas could create about 6,500 jobs in the UK.
However, the industry – with only a few exploratory wells yet drilled – has already struck controversy, as earlier this year two small earthquakes occurred close to the Cuadrilla drilling operations. A subsequent report by Cuadrilla, published earlier in the autumn, found that the drilling operations were probably the cause of the seismic activity, though they said this presented little danger to the inhabitants.
Lobbyists for the gas industry have also seized on the potential of shale gas to argue within Whitehall and Brussels that investing in gas could be cheaper than opting for renewables. The government pledged this summer to make it easier for new gas-fired power stations to be built.
Green campaigners are concerned that not enough is known about the effects of shale gas exploration. Drawing on experiences from the US, where widespread shale gas exploration has ripped up landscapes, they warn of the potential for water contamination, gas leaks, the release of heavy metals and other harmful substances, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at the Cooperative, said: “It is shocking how little scrutiny and thoughtful consideration has been demonstrated by the UK government and its environmental agencies when it comes to shale gas. Not least because, evidence is now emerging which indicates that gas derived from shale may have a significantly greater carbon footprint than previously thought, seriously questioning whether it can play any role in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“The calls from ‘big gas’ for the abandonment of renewables targets must be rebuffed, and here is the science to do just that.”
Wednesday’s report also found that the amount of investment needed to exploit gas reserves – about £32bn – would be enough to build 2,300 offshore wind turbines, which would produce enough renewable energy to meet government targets. Shale gas exploration also supports fewer jobs than renewable energy generation – hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created in offshore wind, solar power and other green energy, but drilling shale gas wells requires minimal manpower.
Tony Bosworth, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “If ministers give shale gas the green light it could wreck UK climate targets and keep us all in hock to soaring energy bills. The only solution to our broken power system is to develop the nation’s home-grown clean energy supplies and cut energy waste. David Cameron must free us from the shackles of the big energy companies keeping us hooked on dirty fossil fuels – and support clean British energy providers instead.”