Now that fracking has resumed in Lancashire after a seven year hiatus, the green lobby which sought to frustrate it and delay it at every turn can reflect on what they have achieved: keeping the UK’s carbon emissions rather higher than they would have been, had our native fracking industry been allowed to develop more quickly.
In the short term at least, the alternative to burning UK-produced shale gas is not, as the green lobby says, using more energy from wind and solar farms. We do not currently have anything close to the electricity storage capacity to cope with a supply which comes exclusively from intermittent sources, and is it not clear at present how this will be resolved. For now, the real alternative to shale gas is either coal or imported gas. Both involve significantly higher carbon emissions than UK-produced shale gas would.
In 2013, the Department of Energy and Climate Change published an analysis of the relative carbon emissions for shale, coal and imported gas. When used for electricity generation, it concluded, shale gas emits between 423 and 535 g CO2e per kWh of energy produced (CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, and takes into account other greenhouse gases). Coal produces between 837 and 1130 g CO2e per kWh. The study also compared UK-produced shale gas with liquified shale gas imported from the US – which forms an increasingly important part of our energy consumption but which involves higher emissions than UK-produced gas would because it has to be cooled and liquified to be transported across the Atlantic. When used for heating, UK-produced shale gas would emit between 200 and 253 g CO2e per kWh compared with 233 to 270 g CO2e per kWh.
Any dispassionate analysis of these figures will come to the conclusion that if we want to lower carbon emissions quickly, the most efficient way of doing this (without reducing the country to pre-industrial poverty) is to replace coal generation with gas. This is indeed what we have been doing. In 2013 coal accounted for 36.6 per cent of electricity generation and gas 26.9 per cent. By 2017 coal had shrunk to 6.7 per cent and gas had grown to 40.7 per cent. The last coal-fired power station in the UK is planned to be turned off for the last time in 2025.
But we could have got to that point far more quickly had UK-produced shale gas been available. In the longer term, it is probable, gas-fired power stations will be switched off too and we will have an electricity supply entirely made up of renewable means. We may also be able to phase out petrol and diesel cars and have electric cars with as big a range – and therefore as practical – as today’s cars. But we are not even nearly there yet and it is just wishful thinking to pretend that we are. In the meantime, greens who chant outside fracking sites, obstruct lorries and chain themselves to fences are responsible for keeping carbon emissions higher than they need be.