By Jon Crooks
I recently wrote to my Labour MP to express my serious concern that the government could soon overturn Lancashire Council’s locally made decision to reject fracking. Whilst I pointed out that such a decision would set a deeply worrying signal for future fracking decisions, the argument I was making in the main was around the principle of whether local councils should be able to make planning decisions like this without interference from Westminster.
My MP kindly responded and dedicated a couple of lines to say that she shared my concern that ministers may overturn locally made decisions to reject fracking.
However, she chose to dedicate the first four paragraphs of her response to a justification of her support for fracking itself. She was at pains to caveat that support, but nonetheless she did seem to be justifying it on the grounds that:
80% of our homes rely on gas for heating
30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.
Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas
I have recently completed a good deal of research on the role of gas in the UK and so I wanted to respond to those three points. I took them in reverse order.
‘Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas’
I am familiar with the ‘energy trilemma’, which is made up of environmental sustainability, energy security and affordability. Let’s take affordability first. It has been well documented that even if we do find a sizable supply of gas under our feet, it would have little or no impact on the price of gas on the wholesale market. I would challenge anyone to convince me otherwise given how the wholesale market works.
So what we are really talking about here is an energy dilemma between energy security and environmental sustainability.
Let’s look at energy security next. First thing to mention is that we have been a net importer of gas for 12 years, as suggested, and nothing much has changed over the last 6 years. In fact, we were relying on a higher proportion of imported gas in the years 2010 – 2013 than over the last couple of years. Whilst one could raise an eyebrow at the thought of imported gas from Qatar, most of our gas comes from Norway who have significant reserves and are a close and friendly neighbour.
The fact of the matter is, the way the wholesale gas market works, we are simply buying contracts based on whatever is cheapest on that particular day, or even that particular second, based on a range of factors. The bottom line is that there is no perceived threat to the supply of gas on the European gas markets, it’s political spin.
What we are really talking about here is GDP. This simply comes down to a trade off between increasing GDP for UK plc vs. environmental impact. In this regard, on the second page of my MP’s letter she actually went on to say that:
“we need a clean, secure, low-carbon future in the UK not a dirty fossil fuel one. The government’s latest report states that the cost of gas generation in 2025 will be higher than the cost of both solar and onshore wind so we need to question why the government is trying to lock us in o a fossil fuel infrastructure for the next thirty five years rather than backing the clean technologies of the future.”
Yes, absolutely! She went on to mention jobs and environmental safeguards. Jobs will be generated in whatever energy sector we decide to pursue. There are no shortage of green jobs in clean energy.
In terms of environmental safeguards, let’s specifically talk about climate. You may have seen recent reports on figures – based on Met Office data – prepared by meteorologist Ed Hawkins of Reading University, which show that average global temperatures have already been more than 1C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38C in February and March.
Keeping within the 1.5C limit set in Paris in December will now be extremely difficult, say scientists, given these rises. These alarming figures will form the backdrop to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Geneva which have now commenced, where scientists have begun work on outlining ways to implement the climate goals set in Paris. Dates for abandoning all coal-burning power stations and halting the use of combustion engines across the globe – possibly within 15 years – are likely to be set.
You will have no doubt heard of Dr James Hansen from Columbia University, the former NASA scientist credited with first bringing the issue of climate change to the fore. In his blog earlier this year he spoke of some very bad news on atmospheric methane. He revealed as follows:
“Methane amount in the atmosphere was stable from 1999 to 2006, but growth resumed in the past decade and accelerated more sharply in the past two years. Although the reasons for resumed methane growth remain to be accurately quantified, the largest methane source is fossil fuel mining and leakage, and the United States seems to be the greatest contributor. The timing and location of renewed methane growth suggest hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations as the primary cause…”
He goes on to put the increased methane (which is far more potent a GHG than CO2) into context in terms of meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement. Hansen says:
“It had appeared in 2000 that, with a rising price on carbon, it might be conceivable to follow a course …which would yield a maximum global warming of about 1.5°C. … the global GHG growth rate is now far above the 1.5°C scenario and diverging from it. So is it even conceivable that this growth trend can be reversed…? The answer is: we have no choice… we need to forgo the fruits of the “fracking” revolution. The signature of U.S. fracking on global methane is only too clear, including the added acceleration of the past two years in which 55,000 additional fracking wells were drilled…”
I don’t know about you, but ‘energy security’ (by which we mean a boost to UK GDP) doesn’t seem quite as important in the context of such a planetary emergency.
‘30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.’
A report by the UK Energy Research Council in February 2016 suggested that there was only limited scope for new gas fired power stations. The report argues that after 2025, if the carbon targets are to be cost-effectively met, the use of gas in power stations would need to decline, especially if they were not fitted with CCS. This would raise questions as to the economic viability of investing in these gas-fired stations, rather than low- or zero-carbon power generation, in the first place.
The UKERC report concluded that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system.
‘80% of our homes rely on gas for heating’
The influential think tank Policy Exchange, in a recent report, said that lack of progress on the decarbonisation of heating could “make or break the UK’s carbon plans”. It suggested a new strategy based on a more balanced set of priorities and technologies – incorporating substantial improvements in energy efficiency, more efficient gas appliances, greener forms of gas (synthetic gas or ‘green gas’ rather than natural gas obtained through ‘fracking’), and alternative heat technologies could deliver an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.
Nick Hurd MP himself in the Paris Agreement climate change debate on 7th September hinted that the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, due out by the end of the year, will focus on reducing emissions from heating and transport.
There can be no doubt therefore that demand for gas in domestic heating will have to fall quickly over the coming decades, before any new source of gas becomes available from ‘fracking’, even if ‘fracking’ is actually viable.
I finished by asking my MP to now please join Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn and Greater Manchester Mayor candidate, Andy Burnham in calling for a ban on fracking. It is deeply unpopular, a huge distraction to what we should be focusing on, it will take years to set up this whole new fossil fuel industry, which could prove to be very costly to our climate and our commitments under the Climate Change Act, whilst failing to deliver cheaper bills.
Gas is already plentiful on the European wholesale market (indeed the world can’t burn what has already been accounted for and remain within 2C of global warming) and demand in the UK will continue to fall as we decarbonise our electricity and domestic heating sectors.
I asked my Labour MP not to side with the Tories, who are far too close to the fossil fuel industry, and instead support a clean energy future instead and come out in favour of a ban on fracking.