Hydraulic fracturing rig on the plains of eastern Colorado.

Hydraulic fracturing rig on the plains of eastern Colorado.

The Infrastructure Bill is finishing its journey through Parliament with a debate in the Commons this afternoon. A large part of that debate is likely to focus on hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) for shale gas in the UK.

In 2012, I chaired a review of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas on behalf of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering that concluded that the health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation. We consulted widely with academia, government, industry and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF-UK.

A major theme of today’s debate will be how fracking might fit within the UK’s, and the global, energy mix

The Environmental Audit Committee’s report (to which the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering submitted evidence) out today recommends that there should be a moratorium on fracking until further assessment has been made of the impact on climate change, the environment, health and safety and the economy. Members of the Committee will be calling for a moratorium on fracking in today’s debate about the Infrastructure Bill.

Important research has already been undertaken to look at these issues. The implications of the use of hydraulic fracturing on the UK’s carbon emissions reduction obligations have been explored by Professor David MacKay FRS and Dr Tim Stone Potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas production and use. They concluded that shale gas’s overall carbon footprint is comparable to gas extracted from conventional sources (i.e. natural gas) and made a number of recommendations to minimise the environmental impact of shale gas extraction.  In 2013, the Climate Change Committee (the independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the Government on emissions targets, carbon budgets and progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions) stated that UK shale gas production could be compatible with meeting our emissions targets but it should not mean a ‘dash for gas’ in the power sectorGas could still play a significant role in the UK’s future energy mix.

The House of Lord’s Economic Affairs Committee stated that shale gas could bring the UK economic benefits, but these could not be quantified until exploratory drilling and appraisal show what the UK’s economically recoverable reserves of shale gas are.

Today’s debate provides an opportunity to ensure the UK’s regulatory framework is effective

The government have accepted all the recommendations of our review on how to manage health, safety and environmental risks. However we cannot properly evaluate these measures until we see them in operation. If fracking goes forward in the UK, the public will need the evidence that the necessary protections are in place and that they are effective.

A number of amendments for debate today focus on the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, several of which address issues highlighted by our review.

Ensuring the independence of well examiners

Ensuring the integrity of wells must remain the highest priority to prevent contamination. Well examiners are highly specialised experts and play an important role in scrutinising the design and implementation of wells to ensure they are safe. Currently there are guidelines in place to determine who can act as a well examiner but it remains possible for an examiner to be employed by the well operator’s organisation.  Our review (page 26, Recommendation 2) recommended that these guidelines should be clarified to ensure the independence of the well examiner. The House of Lord’s Economic Affairs Committee echoed this recommendation in their 2014 report when they called for regulations to make this explicit.

Site-by-site measurement and monitoring

Our review (Recommendations 1 and 3) also recommended operators should conduct site-specific monitoring of methane and other contaminants in groundwater before, during and after shale gas operations. Seismicity should similarly be monitored to mitigate any tremors such as those experienced in the North West in 2011 (although the review concluded that seismicity induced by fracking is likely to be of even smaller magnitude than coal-mining related seismicity). In Committee stage of this Bill, the Government did confirm that the Environment Agency will now require operators to undertake at least three months’ baseline monitoring of methane in groundwater before hydraulic fracturing can commence.

The cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing activity

Shale gas extraction in the UK is presently at a very small scale, involving only exploratory activities: only one well in the UK has been fracked for shale gas in the UK.  Uncertainties currently can be addressed through the robust monitoring systems and research activities we identified in our report, but there remains greater uncertainty about the scale of production activities should a future shale gas industry develop nationwide. Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up (See page 5 in our review) and mechanisms to share information, learn from and adopt operational best practice will allow us to proceed cautiously, effectively managing risks and informing debate. It will also be important to build regulatory capacity which may be needed should production activities take place at scale many years from now (Recommendation 8).

When Parliament debates this afternoon, I would urge them to consider the most constructive way forward. The UK has been fracking and directional drilling for non-shale resources for many years; fracking is not new to the UK but is being newly applied to shale gas. Our review has shown that exploratory fracking in the UK can be managed effectively. Proceeding cautiously, and ensuring that there is a regulatory framework within which fracking can be safely undertaken, will allow us to gather further evidence to inform the way forward. Such an approach will be crucial in ensuring that people have the evidence they need to decide if we want to carry on down the shale gas route.

  • Kevin Anderson

    (The analysis underpinning this response has been developed with my colleague Dr John Broderick)

    Professor Mair’s Royal Society post suggests that the development of a UK shale gas
    industry is compatible with the UK’s climate change targets. I suggest this conclusion is premised on a partial and overly simplistic interpretation of the UK’s muddled climate change obligations. In brief:

    Shale within domestic carbon budgets:
    The development of a UK shale gas industry may be compatible with the UK’s domestic
    carbon budgets – just. These budgets are however premised on a high probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change and on a highly inequitable allocation of the global carbon budget to the UK. Even under such lax conditions (and hence a larger UK carbon budget) there is a significant risk that a new and large-scale shale gas infrastructure could become a stranded asset within a decade or so of major shale gas extraction.

    Shale within 2°C carbon budgets:

    The development of a UK shale gas industry is unequivocally incompatible with UK’s
    equitable share of the IPCC’s carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2°C obligation. Given that CO2 emissions from gas-CCS are anticipated to be five to fifteen times greater per kWh generated than emissions from either renewables or nuclear, and given the timeframe for developing a mature shale gas industry, even with CCS shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK’s energy mix. These arguments hold for all Annex I (industrialised) nations.

    Please note:
    The report MacKay and Stone report for DECC, referred to in the Royal Society post,
    includes the following important conclusion:

    “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”

    In relation to the carbon budgets for a “likely” chance of 2°C, it is abundently clear that there is a complete “absence of strong climate policies”. Consequently, over and above all the detailed discussion in the the Mackay and Stone report – their statement can only be interpreted as concluding that a signficant UK shale gas indutry is not compatible with the UK’s commitment to maintaining temperatures below 2°C (i.e. fitting within the IPCC’s budgets for a likley chance of 2°C).

    This challenging statement is reinforeced in Andrew Alpin’s (Professor of Unconventional Petroleum) measured response to the EAC report on fracking.

    “The development of new fossil fuel resources such as shale gas is broadly incompatible with the UK’s stated commitment to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, any moratorium on shale gas exploration must go hand-in-hand with an equally strong commitment to reducing imports of coal, oil and gas. Given that fossil fuels dominate current energy consumption, this also implies a massive increase in nuclear and renewables, which will be both challenging and expensive.”


    The notes below provide a little more detail to the above headline statements

    A pivotal point to consider before passing any judgment on whether or not UK shale gas is compatible with UK’s climate change obligations is to recognise that the UK holds two very different positions on its mitigation responsibilities – with very different carbon budgets.

    UK’s weak domestic carbon budget (high chance of exceeding 2°C):
    The UK’s domestic position under the Climate Change Act, is for a 63% of exceeding 2°C; global emissions reaching a peak between 2016 and 2020, including for China, with the rest of the poorer nations reaching a peak collectively just a few years later.
    Moreover, it assumes that the wealthier industrialised nations take no responsibility for international emissions from deforestation – despite most having already deforested their own nations. Similarly the process emissions from producing cement for poorer nations to construct the infrastructure necessary for their industrialisation are also neglected – despite the UK (and other wealthier nations) already having established infrastructures. Furthermore, the UK’s domestic targets are premised on highly optimistic assumptions about the cumulative emissions budget of non-greenhouse gas emissions from food. If all this is considered reasonable, then there is a small and probably short-lived opportunity for UK shale gas development. However, even with such highly partisan assumptions, by the time significant shale gas reserves are developed (assuming they exist) there is a real risk that the accompanying infrastructure
    could rapidly become a stranded asset – even under the UK’s weak (i.e. not 2°C)
    domestic carbon budgets.

    UK’s domestic carbon budget for “likely” chance of staying below 2°C:
    By contrast, taking the previous and current Prime Ministers at their word, then the UK’s international climate change commitment is framed by the UK making its equitable contribution to staying below a 2°C rise (explicit in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration). Consequently, the UK’s domestic targets, premised as they are on both a very inequitable distribution of emissions and a 63% of
    exceeding 2°C, are not only incompatible with, but are indeed far weaker than, our international obligations.

    Borrowing from the IPCC’s taxonomy of ‘likelihoods’ the language of the agreements to
    which the UK is a signatory relate to, at most, a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C (with a carbon budget approximately half of that for a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C). However, given where we are in 2015, both our earlier [1] and ongoing analysis typically adopts a much laxer probability of between 66% and 50% chance of staying below 2°C (concluding that this is now the best that can be achieved). We assume a global peak in emissions soon after 2020, with poorer nations, on average, peaking by 2025 and with deforestation and cement emissions accounted for as a global overhead. Our work argues that, though challenging, these assumptions are much more appropriate than the unsupportable starting point of the Government’s analysis. Allying our assumptions with the PM’s express commitment on 2°C (i.e. a more equitable division of the IPCC’s budgets for 66%-50% of staying below 2°C) delivers an uncompromising and unambiguous conclusion. There is no emissions space for shale gas in the UK’s national carbon budgets and emission pathways – and consequently, the only appropriate place for shale gas remains in the ground.

    [1] Anderson, K., and Bows., A., 2011, Beyond dangerous climate change: emission pathways for a new world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 20-44, DOI:10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

    The arguments outlined in this response are similar to those developed in a previous letter to the Prime Minister on the appropriate EU 2030 level of emission reductions (for a 2°C framing of climate change); see: http://kevinanderson.info/blog/letter-to-the-pm-outlining-how-2c-demands-an-80-cut-in-eu-emissions-by-2030/

    From Kevin Anderson
    Professor of Energy and Climate Change
    Tyndall Centre
    University of Manchester