Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has today given the green light for fracking to resume here in Lancashire. I think it’s good news for the economy but also the environment.
By Lee Petts
I realise that not everyone sees it this way, but when you consider it thoughtfully, it’s pretty apparent that there are manifestly good reasons why, as sustainability professionals, we should support shale gas in Britain. Here they are:
1. Lower CO2 than coal
When used to generate electricity, burning natural gas releases significantly less CO2 than coal.
Coal-to-gas switching in the US, using shale gas coupled with big growth in renewables, has helped to reduce power sector CO2 emissions so dramatically in the last decade that they are now at their lowest since 1992 according to the US Energy Information Administration.
In the UK, burning coal releases 920 tonnes of CO2 per GWh (see table 5D here) whereas natural gas produces a much lower 379 tonnes. In 2015, coal supplied 75,629 GWh of electricity and so was responsible for 69.5 million tonnes of CO2eq emissions – producing an equivalent amount of power using natural gas would produce 28.6 million tonnes of emissions, a 41% reduction.
2. Better for air quality
As any environmentalist worth their salt will know, power station sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions are both behind the phenomenon known as ‘acid rain’, but they’re also linked to a range to a range of respiratory health impacts such as asthma.
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2 or SOx) is released when coal and natural gas are burned to generate electricity. Emissions can be calculated based on the known sulphur content of the fuel. Every tonne of coal contains around 1% sulphur or 10,000,000 mg whereas, according to National Grid for natural gas it is 50 mg/m3. Natural gas weighs about 0.0008 tonnes per m3 so 1,250 m3 weigh 1 tonne. Can you see where this is heading? That’s right – the sulphur content of natural gas is low compared with coal (and most of that is from the odorant – mercaptan – that’s added for safety reasons).
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) – and Nitrogen Dioxide or NO2 specifically – are also produced as emissions when coal and natural gas are burned. 2014 data show that UK NOx emissions from burning coal reached 0.6 MtCO2eq. The same data show that burning natural gas produced half the NOx at just 0.3 MtCO2eq.
So, on both of these measures, we can conclude that a switch from burning coal to natural gas in electricity generation would deliver improved health outcomes.
According to CAN Europe, HEAL and WWF, coal fired power in the UK was responsible for 1,520 premature deaths in 2013 and even more abroad and so a move away from coal is important for health, as well as climate reasons.
3. Avoids liquefaction and shipping emissions of LNG
Around 15% of the natural gas we use every year is imported in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) mostly from Qatar.
Chilling the gas to turn it into a liquid is hugely energy intensive, and creates its own CO2 emissions before the natural gas has even been used as a fuel. It then has to be transported by ship, creating additional emissions (most sea-going vessels run on highly polluting fuel oil) and then heated on arrival (using more energy and creating further CO2 emissions) in order to return it to its gaseous state.
According to this lifecycle analysis by Professor Stamford and colleagues at the University of Manchester, UK shale gas could be expected to produce lifecycle emissions of 462 gCO2eq / kWh when burned to create electricity compared to Qatar LNG with lifecycle emissions of 502 gCO2eq / kWh.
That’s about an 8% saving by using the gas beneath our feet rather than shipping it in from overseas, and that’s just in electricity generation – we shouldn’t forget that four-fifths of us use gas to heat our homes, with nearly two-thirds using it to cook.
4. Rapidly despatchable companion to wind and solar renewables
There’s a pretty well-worn phrase associated with renewables: ‘the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow’.
It might be irritating to keep hearing it, but it’s true – both of these technologies depend on the weather and are inherently intermittent. They don’t always produce power when it’s needed and sometimes supply too much.
In order to smooth these peaks and troughs, we need sources of electricity that can brought on line quickly when needed and then turned off just as speedily when demand subsides; natural gas burned in modern Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) plants can do that.
Natural gas can aid renewables penetration and needn’t be seen as an obstacle to it. It’s not a competitor to energy storage either, because even once we have utility-scale storage, there will still be a role for gas in home and industrial heating, and as feedstock for chemicals manufacturing.
5. Reduced surface impact compared with coal
Whether it’s an open cast coal mine or a deep mine like Kellingley colliery (the last such coal mine in the UK, which closed in 2015) the landscape impacts are significant and long lasting.
There’s no doubt that they can be detrimental to wildlife habitats, leave a lasting scar, and are visible from miles around for decades at a time.
Then there’s the dust and noise, and the trains and lorries required to carry the product away.
With shale gas, any disruption is much more transient in nature, being shorter in duration; it takes up less space; the dust problems associated with coal are avoided; the finished product is taken away unseen in underground pipes; and, at the end of its life, a 2 hectare shale gas site can be decommissioned and restored back to its former use in a way that means you’d be hard pressed to know it had ever been there at all.
Shale gas extraction is to coal mining what keyhole surgery is to an open heart operation.
Isn’t it too risky though?
Well, it’s true there are risks, just like with any industrial process, because there are certain hazards involved.
However, it’s important to understand what ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ mean, because people often conflate and confuse the two.
A hazard is essentially anything that can cause harm, and could be an activity (like driving a car) or a substance (like the bleach under your sink). Risk is a computation of the likelihood of harm occurring and the severity of the consequences if it does.
It’s quite possible to have situations where a hazard is present, but because the likelihood or consequence of harm occurring is low, so is the risk. Managing risk, which is practised in all industries, is about eliminating or reducing hazards and then reducing the likelihood of harm occurring and the severity of the consequence if it does.
Here’s what I mean using an example most people will be able to relate to.
Imagine you have a pond in your garden, that isn’t fenced-in, and a toddler. The pond is a hazard, because it could cause harm (drowning). Letting your toddler play in the garden whilst you’re in the house significantly increases the likelihood of your toddler falling into the pond when you’re not looking, and the consequence could obviously be very high – this is a high risk. You could eliminate this altogether by draining the pond and filling it it, or you could put a fence around the pond so your toddler can no longer access it (reducing the likelihood of harm occurring) and make sure that you supervise your child whenever they play in the garden so that you can respond quickly if they do get into trouble in the pond (reducing the consequence by rescuing the child or administering first aid) – making it a medium or even low risk instead.
Businesses practice risk management like this all the time. There’s a factory on the Fylde that makes medicines and cosmetics, and handles all sorts of hazardous substances, but the nearby farms are unaffected. There’s a chemical works elsewhere in the North West that manufactures phosgene just a few hundred metres from the nearest homes, but everyone’s kept safe.
With the risk reduction, control and mitigation measures that have been proposed by Cuadrilla, I believe that any residual risks will be tolerable and worth taking if it helps us access the broader environmental benefits listed above.
Economic benefits of the Lancashire fracking decision
A Lancashire shale gas industry could produce a range of economic benefits felt here in the county and also at the national level – centred on jobs, supply chain opportunities and taxes.
There is admittedly still disagreement on the number of jobs that shale gas could be responsible for, ranging from a few thousand up to 74,000 nationally. Whatever the final tally, it is likely to be significant, with many in the supply chain (indirect) and wider local economy where fracking takes place (induced).
And, if the scheme we outlined in our recent policy paper on shale gas community benefits is ever embraced, it could support even more jobs in the renewables and energy efficiency sectors too.
On supply chain opportunities
Before a spade even hits the ground at a drilling site, there are all sorts of local supply chain opportunities that will be created – take a look here to get a picture of the sorts of functions that will be required and that could be fulfilled locally.
Once gas is being produced into the grid, and exploration tax breaks offered by the government are no longer applied, shale gas companies will pay a 50% effective rate of tax on their profits. No tax is paid on imported gas, meaning we lose out on tax receipts that could otherwise be used to fund subsidies to build more renewables, or to pay for the important public services that we all rely on.
Imperfect, but what isn’t?
Shale gas could deliver a range of important economic AND environmental benefits. Yes, it’s still a fossil fuel and we’d be better off all round if we no longer needed it, but we’re not there yet and won’t be for many decades more. Yes, extracting it will cause some local disruption, but that won’t be any worse than other large civil engineering and construction projects that we accept in our communities. Yes, it comes with some risks, but those risks are well understood and tolerable with the right risk reduction, control and mitigation measures in place. Yes, it’s imperfect, but then what isn’t? As this blog explains, sustainability isn’t black and white, just shades of grey.