Shale gas development on a significant scale is inconsistent with UK carbon budgets unless three conditions are met, according to long-awaited advice to government.
A report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was submitted to ministers at the end of March but laid before parliament only this morning (7 July 2016).
It called for stronger regulation and the urgent development of carbon capture and storage. It said if all its tests were met shale gas could make a useful contribution to UK energy supplies.
The government and industry welcomed the report and said no new regulation of shale gas was needed.
Tests for shale gas
The CCC concluded that shale gas would breach the nation’s targets for emissions cuts unless key tests were passed:
- Well development, production and decommissioning emissions must be strictly limited. Emissions must be tightly regulated and closely monitored in order to ensure rapid action to address leaks.
- Gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budgets. UK unabated fossil energy consumption must be reduced over time within levels advised by the CCC to be consistent with the carbon budgets. This means that UK shale gas production must displace imported gas rather than increasing domestic consumption.
- Accommodating shale gas production emissions within carbon budgets. Additional production emissions from shale gas wells will need to be offset through reductions elsewhere in the UK economy, such that the overall effort to reduce emissions is sufficient to meet carbon budgets.
The report said:
“The UK regulatory regime has the potential to be world-leading but this is not yet assured. ”
It said onshore oil and gas exploitation may require a dedicated regulatory body and added:
“It certainly requires that a strong regulatory framework is put in place now.”
Prof Jim Skea, one of the authors of the CCC report, told The Guardian:
“We need stronger and clearer regulation. UK environmental policy allows quite a lot of discretion to the regulator and, depending on how things develop, it would be necessary to be more precise if you are to regulate emissions effectively.
“Existing uncertainties over the nature of the exploitable shale gas resource and the potential size of a UK industry make it impossible to know how difficult it will be to meet the tests.”
The report said oil and gas operators should be required to use technologies to limit methane emissions, including ‘reduced emissions completions’.
It said a monitoring regime to catch potentially significant methane leaks early was essential to limit the impact of ‘super-emitters’.
“Production should not be allowed in areas where it would entail significant CO2 emissions resulting from the change in land use (e.g. areas with deep peat soils).
“The regulatory regime must require proper decommissioning of wells at the end of their lives. It must also ensure that the liability for emissions at this stage rests with the producer.”
The CCC said carbon budgets required consumption of all unabated fossil fuels to fall over time.
“There is no case for higher levels of UK gas consumption than we have previously set out.
“The long-term path for UK gas consumption, assuming carbon budgets are met, depends strongly on whether or not carbon capture and storage (CCS) is deployed.”
“A UK approach to delivery of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is urgently needed”.
If CCS were widely deployed it would allow fossil fuels to be consumed in a low carbon way, the report said. Without CCS, almost all fossil fuels would have to be eliminated in power generation by mid 2030, and almost all CO2 eliminated from all sectors of the economy by 2050.
The CCC said the impact on overall UK emissions from UK shale production could be around 11 MtCO2e/year in 2030 under a tight regulatory regime.
This is similar in size to the emissions savings in the agriculture sector under the central fifth carbon budget. If regulation were more lax, emissions would be significantly higher, it said.
New sources of UK production must be used to displace imports to meet carbon targets, it added.
“Allowing unabated consumption above these levels would not be consistent with the decarbonisation required under the Climate Change Act.”
The Department of Energy and Climate Change, in a formal response afternoon, said the report’s three tests could be met. On test one, regulation of emissions, it said:
“The regulatory system ensures that wells are safely and appropriately designed, operated and decommissioned during development, production and decommissioning. There are strong requirements in the regulatory system to ensure any associated emissions are limited.”
On test two, consumption, DECC said:
“Lifecycle emissions from UK shale gas are comparable to conventional sources of natural gas, and that it is not believed that UK shale development will impact overall UK gas consumption.”
On test three, carbon budgets, DECC said:
“Additional emissions from shale gas production would be accommodated within carbon budgets and offset by lower emissions in other sectors.”
The Energy Secretary and Conservative leadership contender, Andrea Leadsom, said:
“Shale gas is a fantastic opportunity which could create thousands of jobs across the country and a secure home grown energy source that we can rely on for decades to come.
“We’ve already put measures in place to limit and monitor emissions that meet the conditions set out in this report so we can continue to tackle climate change and take advantage of the benefits this new industry could provide.”
A DECC spokesperson told DrillOrDrop this morning:
“We are happy with the findings. This is nothing new for us. We have been aware of these issues for a long time and we have already put regulation in place. Emissions will be limited and monitored. We are happy about meeting the tests. Fracking will be useful to the UK energy mix.”
Reaction to the findings
Professor Averil Macdonald, chair of the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said in a statement
“Today’s report confirms what we have long maintained – that shale gas production is compatible with the country’s need to reduce emissions. The report also shows that shale gas has lower lifecycle emissions than imported LNG. As an industry, we look forward to continuing to work proactively with regulators to minimise fugitive emissions from our operations.”
Labour’s Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, told The Guardian
“The CCC report lays out three fundamental tests [but] the government has decided to do precisely nothing to increase protection for the public or to deliver security for our climate targets. On this basis, it is currently neither safe nor reasonable to approve any fracking in Britain.”
Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace Chief Scientist
“The idea that fracking can be squared with the UK’s climate targets is based on a tower of assumptions, caveats, and conditions on which there is zero certainty of delivery.
“We know that the government is resisting putting in place policy and regulations needed so that fracking can pass the three climate tests that the Climate Committee is recommending.
“The problem with ramping up a whole new high-carbon infrastructure and the fossil fuel vested interests to go with it is that you can’t just dial it down later on if emissions start going through the roof.
“The government now faces a clear choice between promoting this climate-wrecking industry in the face of strong opposition or honour the Paris climate deal and back clean, home grown, reliable renewable energy and smart technologies instead.”
Paul Mobbs, environmental consultant for Extreme Energy Initiative
“On a quick reading it’s possible to say that the CCC have completely ducked the issue of fugitive methane emissions. Yes, they refer to some recent research studies on the issue, but as part of their calculations they’re still using the data from “reduced emissions completion” studies in the USA.
“Recent peer-reviewed studies on this data has shown that it is flawed because the methane sensor used doesn’t work under all test conditions — and the data from the Allen study, the standard data source used, demonstrates that it was not sensing high methane releases for some of the time.”
“The problem with the sensor has been known publicly for about 12 months, and within the industry for much longer. In fact the failure of the measuring equipment goes some way to explaining the difference between “inventory analysis” studies used by the industry, and the recent studies of actual gas concentrations which discovered high methane emissions.”
CCC report and the Infrastructure Act
The CCC’s report meets a requirement under the Infrastructure Act 2015 to advise the government on the compatibility of shale development with UK carbon targets. The CCC must revisit its advice every five years, in each carbon budget period.
If the committee deems shale gas extraction to be contrary to the UK’s climate targets, the Secretary of State must either remove companies’ shale gas extraction licenses or explain why they are allowing fracking to continue.