The UK mustn't follow the US's 'Wild West' approach to tapping unexploited reserves of fossil fuels.
The question of whether we should exploit shale gas in the UK can be approached from a range of different perspectives. Is increased gas availability good or bad news for tackling climate change? What are the local environmental impacts? Could shale gas improve UK energy security?
Last December, Friends of the Earth published a report that reviewed some of the latest science on climate change and identified what it means for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientific understanding of climate change has moved on in recent years. We now know that to avoid high risks of economic damage, extreme weather events and severe ecosystem damage, we need to keep global temperature increases to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Importantly, there is a high risk of crossing tipping points if temperatures increase above this level – for example the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet or the release of vast quantities of methane from Siberian permafrost.
The implication of this is that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. Developed countries need to act now to cut their emissions by between 8 and 15 per cent per year, and many developing countries, such as China, should peak their emissions and begin to reduce them. If these reductions are not politically or technically possible then geo-engineering will be necessary, such as capturing and storing carbon from biomass power plants.
Our analysis strongly suggests that to cut UK emissions we need to move away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. Much more research is needed about the carbon footprint of shale gas.
Meanwhile, conventional gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel. Carbon capture and storage may enable gas to operate with very low carbon emissions, but this technology is still some way off. Instead of seeking to increase the amount of gas available through shale gas, we believe there are ample conventional gas resources to bridge a fast transition to a renewable energy-powered electricity supply.
Further research into the local environmental impacts of shale gas is also vital. The 'Wild West' exploitation of shale gas in the US was poorly regulated and has led to reports of groundwater pollution. The UK has stringent groundwater pollution laws, but regulators need to know much more about the chemical mix used in shale gas exploitation to be sure local groundwater will be protected. Groundwater isn't just important for drinking water – it affects wildlife too.
As for energy security, the exploitation of shale gas is at least partially motivated by security of supply concerns. In the US this overrode fears of local environmental impacts and'the UK may follow suit. Friends of the Earth doesn't believe we need shale gas – instead, security of supply can be obtained by exploiting a diverse range of renewable power options, backed up by energy storage and an international grid to mainland Europe. Energy storage technologies include pumped water storage, sea lagoons and, in the future, batteries in electric cars, compressed air and/or compressed hydrogen used in open-cycle hydrogen turbines.
Friends of the Earth thinks that shale gas, with its greater carbon footprint, should be left in the ground. At the very least, a moratorium should be put in place until much more is known about the risks.
The biggest challenge facing the UK is avoiding dangerous climate change. The government's advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, say we need to decarbonise the grid almost entirely by 2030. We should use conventional gas as a short-term transition fuel only, while maximising the development of renewable power and increasing our energy storage abilities. The government must ensure that a Green Investment Bank not only gets the ball rolling – but delivers completely and effectively on the enormous task ahead of us. *
Mike Childs is Friends of the Earth's Head of Climate (www.foe.co.uk)