The government’s climate advisor has said the ongoing moratorium on fracking in England should not be lifted without considering the impact of shale gas on greenhouse gas emissions.
The moratorium was imposed in November 2019 because of concerns about induced earthquakes, following a series of seismic events linked to fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire.
In a letter to ministers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said a UK shale gas industry could increase the use of fossil gas and raise global greenhouse gas emissions. It said:
“If concerns are overcome regarding seismicity, the moratorium on UK shale production should not be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact.”
It said the review should look at the effect of shale gas on the UK’s net zero strategy and international decarbonisation plans. There should be a “proper assessment of the lifecycle emissions of UK unconventional fossil fuel production and alternative sources of supply”.
The CCC said fossil gas may have a role, in combination with carbon capture and storage (CCS}, to make hydrogen and generate electricity. But it said:
“UK shale gas production risks increasing the global consumption of fossil gas, unless new UK production is matched by equivalent reductions in overseas supply.”
It also said:
“The addition of UK production to the market for fossil gas could lead to higher fossil gas consumption through displacement of low-carbon energy and/or an increase in energy consumption.
“Should extra UK fossil gas production lead to higher gas consumption globally, especially in the likely case that this is without CCS, this would push up global emissions.”
A climate review of shale gas should consider the progress and costs of hydrogen production and CCS, the CCC recommended.
It should also look at the implications of fracking for the public acceptance of the energy transition to net zero emissions. The CCC said the unpopularity of shale gas could risk public acceptance of hydrogen if the two were closely linked in public perception. Given the value of hydrogen to low carbon energy, the “risk is material”.
The CCC is required under the 2015 Infrastructure Act to advise the UK government every five years on the compatibility of onshore oil and gas, including shale gas, with carbon budgets.
The letter, dated 31 March 2021, also recommended the UK should:
- Put in place policies to reduce direct emissions from fossil fuel consumption in the UK. The policies should deliver improved energy efficiency, use of zero-carbon energy sources and electrification and the rapid development and use of hydrogen and CCS.
- Adopt policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the production and supply of fossil fuels consumed in the UK, regardless of where the emissions occur.
It said fossil gas with CCS faced “multiple challenges”. CCS reduced carbon emissions by up to 85%, compared with unabated fossil gas so it did not cut emissions to zero. It would increase dependence on large amounts of CCS infrastructure and potentially imported fossil gas. There were also concerns about the progress of CCS:
“deployment of CCS has made relatively little progress in the UK and internationally, repeatedly falling behind roadmaps and stated intentions. Given its role in greenhouse gas removals, industrial decarbonisation and energy generation, it is important that more rapid progress is made on CCS deployment. Failure to do so will reduce further the scope for fossil fuel consumption on the path to Net Zero.”
The CCC’s previous advice on onshore petroleum in 2016 focussed specifically on shale gas. It said three tests must be met for shale gas to be compatible with UK carbon budgets. These were:
- Strict limits on emissions from well development, production and decommissioning
- Gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budget requirements
- Additional production emissions from shale gas well must be offset through reductions elsewhere in the UK economy
Since then, the UK committed to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. The CCC said:
“These tests remain valid, but the greater stringency of the UK’s increased climate ambition will make them more difficult to achieve.”
The letter also referred to the government’s North Sea Transition Deal, which committed to reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of offshore oil and gas production by 50% by 2030, compared with 2018 levels. The CCC said this was “significantly lower” than the recommendation in the Sixth Carbon Budget in December 2020 It said the government should adopt a “stronger policy” on reducing the emissions footprint of fossil fuels consumed in the UK.
“Weak policies towards domestic oil and gas emissions will hinder the achievement of Net Zero and risk damaging the UK’s authority as COP President.”