Shale gas goes to the House of Lords - energy benefits and environmental costs debated

Materials World magazine
,
26 Nov 2013

Rachel Lawler sits in on a fractious debate about shale gas at the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in London.

After months of heated debate between shale gas proponents and environmentalists, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee is hearing arguments from both sides. Green campaigners invited to give evidence at a public meeting were clear: ‘Our organisations are opposed to the development of shale gas in the UK, mainly on grounds relating to climate change,’ said Nick Molho, Head of Policy (Climate and Energy) at WWF-UK.

Craig Bennett, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth, spoke at length about his concerns relating to the UK’s water supply. ‘Studies vary, but in the USA water use has varied from 9,000 to 29,000m3 to frack one well. That is an extraordinary amount of fresh water in any context,’ he said.

Talk then moved on to comparisons with the US shale gas market and its potential impact on coal prices. Molho commented, ‘We have seen an increased use of shale gas in the USA and this has been accompanied by increased exports of coal to European and Asian markets, where the coal is then being burnt and is adding to global greenhouse gas emissions’. Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist and Policy Director at Greenpeace agreed, ‘The decrease in coal prices in Europe has been strongly associated with the increased export from the US, and that is why in the UK and Germany we are seeing a high level of coal burning’.

This prompted Lord Lawson of Blaby to ask, ‘Are you against cheap energy?’ But the campaigners’ stance was resolute. ‘There is nothing cheap about climate change,’ Bennett replied. Molho added that the effects of climate change are international and the impact of the UK’s decisions on developing nations should be considered. ‘To address the all round issue of cost of living both in the UK and internationally, we need to move cost-effectively towards a low-carbon power sector,’ he said.

Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at University of California, USA, stepped in to give evidence next. ‘The biggest thing you can do [to prevent climate change] is reduce energy consumption. The second biggest thing you can do is shift away from coal to natural gas,’ he explained. ‘This will not solve global warming, but it will give us time.’ All seemed to agree that shale gas is preferable to coal. But while the green campaigners were in favour of renewable energy sources, Muller was concerned that the technology is not yet ready to meet growing energy demands. He said, ‘If we don’t develop natural gas then it will be coal that will meet the shortfall.’

For all the strong opinions on shale gas expressed, the issue was not as polarising as it seemed on the surface. All parties agreed it is important to develop renewable energy sources, and that fracking should not come at the expense of other energy resources. ‘We are not facing a binary choice, there are other options out there that can make economic sense in the long term,’ Bennett argued.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has since heard evidence from companies hoping to develop shale gas and oil drilling in the UK including representatives from Cuadrilla, IGas Energy and INEOS.  

Shale gas ‘low risk’ to public health
A Public Health England report has ruled that the risk to public health from exposure to emissions from shale gas extractions is low, providing that operations are properly regulated.

View the report online at www.hpa.org.uk/Publications/Environment/PHECRCEReportSeries