Natural gas from shale rock is the same as all natural gas. The only difference is that it is trapped in impermeable shale rock. Whilst burning shale gas to produce energy does cause CO2 emissions, a greenhouse gas, generating electricity from gas produces about half of the emissions of generating electricity from coal.1 Greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 3 5th Assessment Report, published in April 2014 said that avoiding climate change will mean reducing coal use before reducing the use of gas. This is because generating electricity from gas produces about half of the emissions than generating electricity from coal. However, they concluded more research needs to be done on methane released into the atmosphere during shale gas extraction2.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which advises the Government on meeting the country’s carbon reduction targets, has concluded:
“UK shale gas production would reduce our dependence on imports and help to meet the UK’s continued gas demand, for example in industry and for heat in buildings, even as we reduce consumption by improving energy efficiency and switching to low-carbon technologies.”3
However, we also must consider the effects of shale gas escaping into the atmosphere when it is being extracted. Shale gas is mostly methane which is more harmful to the environment than CO2. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.”4
Therefore, to ensure the effect on the environment is minimised, it is very important that as much of the gas extracted as possible is used and that as little methane as possible escapes into the atmosphere. The government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) insists that operators must minimise the release of gas into the atmosphere and, when gas can’t be economically used, it must be captured and “flared” to reduce its global warming emissions’.5 Beyond exploration, operators will have a commercial incentive not to flare gas, as the gas could otherwise be sold.
Finally, the shale gas industry in the UK is developing “green completion” based on industry best practice, to reduce the emissions of gases into the air, and this is emphasised in UKOOG’s “UK Onshore Shale Gas Well Guidelines”6. This involves using specialist equipment to collect and separate the initial flow of water, sand and gas, so the gas can be prevented from escaping. According to Professor David MacKay, (DECC’s Chief Scientific Advisor), and Dr Timothy Stone (the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State), “green completions” should be adopted at all stages following exploration.7 According to the Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change “Green completions and flaring can reduce methane emissions by as much as 95% versus venting straight into the atmosphere.”8
Professor Richard Selley from Imperial College London said: “The Government’s energy policy is to solve the ‘Trilemma’ for providing energy that is economic, that does least damage to the environment, and whose source is secure. It supports hydraulic fracturing for shale gas as part of a balanced mix of diverse energy sources, including nuclear and renewables. All 3 major parties support this solution to the energy trilemma.”
6 UKOOG, UK Onshore Shale Gas Well Guidelines http://www.ukoog.org.uk/images/ukoog/pdfs/ShaleGasWellGuidelines.pdf
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