The debate on fracking is ever increasing in both frequency and intensity writes Argyll Environmental’s Julie Carter.

This so-called dash for gas was given the green light earlier this year by our ‘greenest ever’ government after the findings of a joint report by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineers concluded that, with close monitoring, hydraulic fracturing for shale gas should go ahead in the UK.

The Royal Society report on shale gas extraction looked specifically at the risks associated with seismic activity and contamination of water supplies. These issues have been well reported - we’ve all heard the horror stories of ‘earthquakes’ near Blackpool, and the toxic, radioactive and flammable tap water in parts of the US.

However, the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on climate change were not analysed in the report, nor do they seem to have been considered generally by the government.  The extraction and use of shale gas produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane - methane being a potent greenhouse gas - thirty-three times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Most of the methane losses come from leakage during drilling as well as during flowback of the fracking fluid. Further losses occur during compression of the gas and during pipeline transport. New studies on heavily fracked natural gas fields indicate that the leakage rates from wells generally range from 4-9% of the total gas production. Many scientists agree that any leakage above 2% in gas production makes the fuel a dirty source of energy and as problematic as coal.

Yet shale gas is being heralded by its supporters as the cleanest form of fossil fuels. Compared to oil and coal, natural gas does produce less carbon dioxide on burning. However new research is providing the first hard evidence that the ‘cleanest-burning’ fossil fuel is not actually any better than coal when it comes to climate change due to the methane losses.

This was the result of an investigation led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, responding to high concentrations of natural gas that were detected during routine air sampling in Denver, Colorado. The gas was later linked to emissions from a nearby fracking site.

A report produced by a team at Cornell University in the US came to a similar conclusion, identifying that shale gas production emits more greenhouse gases than coal: at least 20% greater over a 20 year period, largely because of methane escaping after the fracturing process. Some academics and the gas industry have branded the findings as exaggerated, but given the limited amount of research that has taken place on the effects of fracking to date, scientific data is scarce and there is no evidence to the contrary.

The Committee on Climate Change, the statutory body set up to advise the UK government on greenhouse gas emissions recently urged government to give up on its ‘dash for gas’, stating that it is ‘completely incompatible’ with UK carbon targets. Meanwhile, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) website advertises the government’s moves to create a more efficient, low-carbon economy to meet legally binding targets, including reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. There is very little reference on the DECC website to shale gas, and no information how the government intends to mitigate its effects on climate change in order to meet its emission targets.

The government’s support for shale gas gives a clear message that short term energy security is higher up its agenda than tackling the threat of climate change. No surprise then, that climate change was not among David Cameron’s priorities for the UK’s G8 presidency which were announced on the 1st of January. 

His statement read, “As the Chair of the G8, the UK has a unique opportunity to lead in … taking concrete action with other G8 countries to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”

For some reason, climate change didn’t make it onto the list of the world’s most pressing challenges. Many scientists suspect that the rapid exploitation of unconventional gas deposits such as shale and coal bed methane could result in such huge methane releases that they could help tip the planet into an ‘alternative climate system’.

It seems that the decision to pursue shale gas generation in the UK will be to the detriment of the move towards a less carbon-intensive system, distracting from the necessary drive for greater investment in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy and locking us into an insecure and high-carbon energy system. Surely we need more scientific evidence and a better understanding of the possible climate implications of fracking before the government pushes ahead with these plans.