Archive for the ‘Hydraulic Fracturing’ Category
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!
I know this has been said many times. Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE. If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…
CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article. Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”. However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad“. Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system. However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):
Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.
Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns. Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it. However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:
The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.
This is an important point well made. However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake. Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come… And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:
What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?
Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise. As Reeves puts it:
In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations? It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)
The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable. We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up. Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem. Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.
Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global. However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:
The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were. But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy - and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing. For example, here is just a snippet:
This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months. However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’. For example, take this:
We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage? Who do we think we are?
Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us? Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:
Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)
Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).
It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.
Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].
The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror…
I am not sure what good it will do unless the whole World decides to stop self-harming as well but…
One way to stop Ecocide in Europe would be to stop Hydraulic Fracturing from going ahead in your neighbourhood. The best way to do this would be to form or join a local protest group: See the Frack-Off website for details.
As a hydrogeologist who has spent many years working on Landfill sites, I am well acquainted with methane; and how it is better to burn it than to let it escape into the atmosphere. Therefore, even if you discount all the immediate environmental hazards associated with fracking, you should be very concerned about the uncontrolled releases of methane that will occur if fracking becomes common practice. As per my recent blog post, Stephen Leahy explains why here.
Meanwhile, on the subject of those immediate environmental risks, here is the inside story from someone who was, until comparatively recently, directly involved; environmental scientist Jessica Ernst (thanks Christine).
Ultimately, of course, ecocide will only be avoided if we stop doing the things that are causing it. And the main thing we are doing that is causing it – is growing in numbers in the absence of predators; consuming exponentially-increasing amounts of food and water; and producing exponentially-increasing amounts of waste. This is no idle piece of misanthropic rhetoric – it is a cold hard fact.
Louise Gray published a short article on the Telegraph website yesterday, in which she cites Sir David Attenborough as having described humans as a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth. This has attracted an an awful lot of attention and comment; most of it negative; and some of it very unpleasant. What I find most astonishing is the inability of so many admittedly-self-selected people to appreciate the difference between ideology and science. Furthermore, despite little evidence of scientific training in many of their comments, they seem content to accuse Attenborough of being a bad scientist; a bad person; and of peddling bad ideology. All this reality inversion prompted this comment from me:
Absolutely stupendous amounts of Dunning-Kruger Effect in evidence here: Despite the fact that only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at doing anything — and a far smaller percentage are likely to know what they are talking about in this instance — the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas is clearly the intellectual fortress to which the ideologically-prejudiced retreat when confronted with the scientific realities of Nature.
A few hours earlier I had found it necessary to respond to a particularly stupid assertion (that every human could be given 1000 square feet and there would still be room for plenty more) by saying this:
You need to look up the terms “ecological carrying capacity” and “overpopulation” in a reputable scientific dictionary. The latter is dependent on the former – which is specific to local conditions – so even one person per square mile makes a desert overpopulated.
If you think that a seven-fold increase in the human population since the Industrial Revolution is not a problem – especially as we are running out of the “cheap” energy that facilitated it – you are picking a fight with basic biological science: Populations of any species are limited by food supply and by predation. Humans have no predators but, having ignored (or disputed) the warnings for decades, we are now beginning to see people fighting over access to clean water and food; or at very least complaining about the price of life’s essentials – hence the Arab Spring.
The writing is very much on the wall. We ignore it (or dispute the fact that it is there) at our peril.
* UPDATE: With thanks to fellow-blogger Pendantry for alerting me to this video of Guy McPherson (University of Arizona), note that research published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2009 concluded climate change is already irreversible!
Having recently discovered the WordPress blog of international environmental journalist Stephen Leahy, he has now given me permission to also re-publish, in full, an article about hydraulic fracturing (i.e. “fracking”), which he originally published nearly a year ago and has just updated. It is from this recent update (inserted at the top of the original piece) that the title of my blog post here is derived. However, apart from thanking Stephen for permission to re-publish this – and urging all readers to take note of the recent research regarding methane released by fracking – I think further words from me would be superfluous.
This and all images below are taken from http://stephenleahy.net
UPDATE Jan 2013:
Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to 9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.
In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:
From Nature: ‘Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field’. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.
From Environmental Research Letters: ‘New study demonstrates switching to natural gas is the path to climate disaster’. What’s needed is an aggressive deployment of zero-carbon technologies and conservation. Joe Romm explains. — Stephen
Shale Gas Worse Than Coal Study Finds
By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 24, 2012 (IPS)
Hundreds of thousands of shale gas wells are being “fracked” in the United States and Canada, allowing large amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere, new studies have shown.
Shale gas production results in 40 to 60 percent more global warming emissions than conventional gas, said Robert Howarth of Cornell University in New York State.
“Shale gas also has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than oil or coal over the short term,” said Howarth, co-author of a study called “Venting and Leaking of Methane from Shale Gas Development” to be published in the journal Climatic Change.
(Audio of news conference)
This latest study follows up on Howarth and colleagues’ controversial April 2011 paper that provided the first comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing. That study found that when gas wells are “fracked”, they leak large amounts of methane and pose a significant threat to the global climate.
“We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research,” said Howarth.
That research undercuts the logic of energy sector claims that shale gas is a “bridge” to a low-carbon energy future. Those claims are based on the fact that natural gas (which is mainly methane) has half the carbon content of coal, and when burned for electricity it is more energy efficient than coal.
However, those climate gains are more than negated by methane leaks both at the well during the fracking process (called flow-back), and through the gas delivery and distribution system. Howarth and colleagues estimate that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of all shale gas produced leaks – called “fugitive emissions” – into the atmosphere, making it worse than burning coal or oil.
Methane has 105 times the warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year time frame, after which it rapidly loses its warming potential. If large amounts of methane are released through fracking – as seems likely with hundreds of thousands of new wells forecast in the next two decades – Howarth says global temperatures could rocket upward from 0.8C currently to 1.8C in 15 to 35 years, running the risk of triggering a tipping point that could lead to catastrophic climate change.
“Our primary concern is that methane emissions over the coming two decades will drive the entire climate system past a major tipping point,” he told IPS.
A study by the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) last September also concluded that methane leaks meant that natural gas provided little advantage over using coal. Even if leaks are one to two percent, far less than the Howarth estimates, it would only be slightly better than continuing to burn coal, the “Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage” study concluded.
Fracking involves drilling vertically 500 to 3,000 metres into gas- bearing shale rock and then horizontally for 1,000 metres or more along the shale formation. Then chemicals and large amounts of water are pumped underground at high enough pressure to fracture the shale, releasing the gas into the pipeline.
The first uses of hydraulic fracturing were in Texas in the early 1990s, but were very limited. However, new technologies developed in the last eight years have made it possible to get at deep, widely dispersed deposits of gas.
The George W. Bush administration’s 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from regulations under the U.S. Clean Water Act, clearing the way for the shale gas gold rush. In recent years, shale gas production has grown 48 percent per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There are now an estimated 400,000 wells in the continental U.S. and tens of thousands more planned in the next year or two. Public concern has risen over water and air pollution, water shortages, disruption of rural neighbourhoods, and even earthquakes.
Ohio halted fracking this month in one part of the state after a series of small earthquakes were linked to injecting fracking wastes underground. Fracking a well requires injecting 10 to 15 million litres of water and 200,000 litres of chemicals and the resulting wastewater is often too contaminated to be reused and is pumped deeper underground or left in wastewater ponds.
Although the gas industry long denied that fracking contaminates drinking water wells and aquifers, hundreds of claims have been made over the years. However, very little independent research has been done.
Last year, researchers at Duke University looked at 68 fracking sites and found groundwater with methane concentrations 17 times higher than in wells located where fracking was not taking place. Some of the levels were higher than “immediate action” hazard levels.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally began to conduct its first in-depth study of the risks to drinking water. Preliminary results released late last year revealed drinking water contaminated by benzene, a known carcinogen and one of the chemicals used in fracking.
From a climate perspective, shale gas is certainly worse than conventional gas, said Zeke Hausfather, an energy expert at Efficiency 2.0 in New York, which works with power utilities. However, Hausfather disputes Howarth’s findings that shale is worse than coal since the latter emits more CO2 and while methane has a life of only 10 years in the atmosphere, CO2 stays for thousands of years.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about methane leakage and much of it is based on estimates,” Hausfather told IPS.
Howarth’s range is on the high side, with his upper estimate of 7.9 percent, 400 percent higher than estimates for conventional gas leakage, he said. However, reducing methane leakage from shale gas is an important issue that regulators should address.
In the face of strong industry resistance, the EPA has proposed regulations to require capture of methane at the time of well completion. Regulations are necessary since economic considerations alone have not driven such reductions, said Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University and one of Howarth’s co-authors.
However, plugging the methane leaks downstream from the wellhead in transmission pipelines, compressor stations, and decades-old distribution pipelines under the streets of cities and towns throughout the U.S. and Canada would be extraordinarily expensive, Ingraffea said.
“Would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?” he asked.
First published as Shale Gas a Bridge to More Global Warming – IPS ipsnews.net.
My earlier article on this topic:
(Copyright 2012/2013 Stephen Leahy)
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I said further words from me would be superfluous. Therefore, instead, I would like to recommend these words from Paul Handover - of Learning from Dogs fame - which include a summary of some of the most significant projections of the new US National Climate Assessment (report issued in draft for public comment); and some wise words also from Grist blogger David Roberts.
Thanks to Twitter, I was alerted to an online discussion on the Guardian website yesterday, prompted by statements of opinion by Mark Lynas (freelance journalist/author) and Dr David Santillo (Greenpeace Scientist).
As discussed with a commenter on this blog (Lionel) yesterday, I decided to get involved; and to try and contact Dr Santillo personally, via email:
Dear Dr Santillo,
Re: The discussion on the Guardian website today regarding Fracking
I am 100% opposed to fracking; but I think Greenpeace should move on from discussing the possible immediate environmental risks of doing it. Hence the comment that I posted earlier.
When will environmentalists stop arguing about whether fracking is inherently dangerous (because of its immediate and localised impacts when poorly engineered and/or executed)… and start focusing on the fact that it is intrinsically dangerous (because we need to stop finding evermore esoteric and unconventional fossil fuel sources to exploit)…?
Apart from this, whilst I would not want to condone the way in which at least one commenter on the Guardian website today has questioned the relevance of your background, this does beg the question as to whether Greenpeace could make use of someone with my qualifications and experience?
Yours hopefully, etc..
Having failed to get a response, I telephoned Greenpeace today, and was referred to a Press Release published on their website yesterday, which is indeed very interesting – because it includes information obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. ‘Greenpeace on lifting of fracking moratorium’ is worth reading in full but, if you are short of time, here are the highlights:
- Fracking is a dangerous fantasy.
- Just because it may be viable in the US does not mean it will be viable here.
- Energy analysts agree that shale gas will do little or nothing to lower bills.
- It is a massive gamble and consumers and the climate will end up paying the price.
Greenpeace FOI requests have established that, as early as last Spring, the Environment Agency issued a high-level briefing to the Prime Minister regarding their concerns of threats to drinking water near proposed fracking sites in Sussex. Clearly, such concerns have been trumped by the climate change sceptics and/or economic rationalists in the Conservative Party.
A full Greenpeace briefing on fracking can be found here: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/document/shale-gas-silver-bullet.
UPDATE: 17 Dec 2012 – Greenpeace UK also advised me to keep an eye on their Energydesk page – for updates on all things related to UK energy policy.
Yesterday, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, Andrew Rawnsley highlighted an important delusion currently infecting a large proportion of – the senior partner in the UK’s coalition government – the Conservative Party.
In his article, entitled ‘The fracking dream which is putting Britain’s future at risk’, Rawnsley proposes the name “frack-heads” for people seduced by the idea that hydraulic fracturing will be “a remarkable bonanza of cheap energy” – because “[b]elievers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance“.
In recent months, I have posted a number of items about hydraulic fracturing on this blog; many of them prompted by what Grist blogger Dave Robert has written about it; and by the films of Josh Fox (i.e. Gasland and The Sky is Pink). Most recently, of course, Bill McKibben has reminded the World that we have five times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn and, burning all of them is therefore gambling the future habitability of this planet on making Carbon Capture and Storage work. I remain convinced that we should be making more effort to decarbonise our power generation systems as soon as possible.
But what of Rawnsley’s article; what has he got against fracking? Well, initially, it is not clear, because parts of his article read like some twisted April Fool’s Day joke; such as when he points out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has:
“…paved the way for drilling by trailing tax breaks to incentivise the exploration of shale gas and announced a new regulatory outfit, the Office for Unconventional (Shale) Gas, dubbed Ofshag…
So, Rawnsley correctly boils-down the enthusiasm of the frack-heads as being the pursuit of perpetuating the delusion of cheap energy; and a determination to insist that there is such a thing as a free lunch. However, sadly, on his way to explaining why he thinks fracking is risky, Rawnsley gets a bit confused: He rightly observes that climate change deniers “are prominent among the frack-heads” but then spoils it all by asserting that fracking “seems to offer something to greens because shale gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.” However, in all of what remains of Rawnsley’s article, he never once even comes close to pointing out the inherent danger of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because we can.
So, as I said, what is it that Rawnsley thinks is risky? Well, just in case you can’t be bothered to read his article, he basically re-states the position of the UK government’s advisors – that it probably can be done safely. Despite this pragmatism, however, Rawnsley foresees a great deal of popular opposition to something that will, nevertheless, be far more intrinsically dangerous – and therefore unpopular – than wind turbines. Rawnsley then makes the point that UK geology is very different from that in the USA; which may make shale gas even harder to extract here than it has there. However, all this is just a pre-amble to Rawnsley’s penultimate paragraph, in which he almost pulls together a coherent and comprehensive argument (emphasis mine):
The risks of this “dash for gas” are multiple. It locks Britain into a continued reliance on an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables, which is especially bonkers when the green energy sector is one of the few parts of the British economy that is currently displaying good growth. It makes it less likely that we will meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. Should shale gas truly turn out to be viable, there would be dividends. But if, which seems much more likely at the moment, the claims made for it prove to be false, then Britain is going to be even more exposed to future price shocks and blackmail by foreign suppliers. We are already hazardously dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East. Much of our gas comes through the Straits of Hormuz from Qatari platforms just outside Iran’s territorial waters. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel terribly secure. Nor do I sleep easier at night when I think about Vladimir Putin’s finger hovering over our national light switch.
I therefore agree with Rawnsley that this is “fracking crazy” – I just think it is a shame he failed to mention Bill McKibben!
I am sorry but, being positive is very hard work; especially when you find out that your government is being incredibly hypocritical. This happened to me last week, when I finally caught up with what the UK Coalition government did to our planning policy guidelines six months ago. First, however, here is a quick re-cap of the relevant issues:
With regard to carbon capture and storage (CCS or “clean coal”) and extracting methane from strata that do not release it naturally (by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”), I have been on a bit of a personal odyssey in the last 6 months. With a background in geology and hydrogeology – and an MA in Environmental Politics – I would like to think I have a better-than-average appreciation of the issues. Therefore, although I think I have reached a destination, I still feel deeply troubled by both CCS and fracking.
I think humanity has proven itself to be so stupid – and so willing to allow worship of the god of economics to subvert sensible acknowledgement of the reality of science – that we will now have to rely upon making CCS work. This is because, if we don’t make it work, modern civilisation is probably history. Fracking on the other hand, remains – as David Roberts called it – an insane piece of collective hypnosis. Fracking is definitely not the answer. Fossil fuels are like heroin; they are a self-destructive habit we need to get off ASAP.
In the UK, we are now being told we are less than 3 years from blackouts (because sensible EU regulations will force the closure of our worst-polluting coal-fired power stations). That being the case, the solution should not be to do more of the same. The answer should be to move away from fossil fuels. The UK government is now preparing to spend billions of pounds supporting a new generation of fossil fuel based power generation infrastructure – power stations and distribution networks. However, the priority of our politicians should not be to preserve the profitability of fossil fuel business set up in the 19th Century; it should be to preserve the habitability of planet Earth into the 21st Century.
OK, so what of planning policy, etc.? Well, on the eve of the Conservative Party conference this week, here is the email I sent my MP last Friday:
Presuming you are attending, I hope you enjoy it. However, I am hoping you will read this brief email before Monday.
In light of the way in which our“greenest government ever” has removed Feed-in Tariff incentives for people to invest in Solar PV; overturned the presumption against opencast coal mining in planning policy; is forcing opencast developments on communities and county councils that had rejected them; and is ignoring its own scientific advisors to pursue decades of unabated gas-fired power generation… I am inclined to feel that my friendship (as opposed to membership) of the Conservative Party may be under threat.
If this is what happens while in a Coalition with the LibDems, goodness knows what will happen if we ever get a Conservative majority! Don’t get me wrong though; I am not about to vote LibDem or Labour. I cannot do so because I am not a Liberal; and Labour is still not living in the real world: Consequently, Ed Milliband’s speech to his own conference was memorable for only one thing – hypocrisy. Neither am I a fan of protest groups such as UKIP (because they are climate change deniers)… So I am basically very tempted to waste my vote on the ultimate protest group – the Green Party – at least I will have a clear conscience if I do that. However, the Conservative Party has 32 months in which it could yet decide to embrace reality and stop pretending that economics can invalidate science: I think economists are very unwise to pick a fight with either history or science. However… I hope you will watch this 1 minute and 47 second video…
With regard to the claims made in this email, the Coalition Government…
– Has failed to level the playing field with regard to early pioneers who decided to invest in domestic solar PV installations and has removed the incentives for large-scale Solar Farms. It has therefore made life very difficult for firms to predict where the market is heading. Wikipedia has a good summary here.
– Has removed the presumption against opencast coal mining in the National Planning Policy Framework, which now allows economic need to trump any concern over the environmental sustainability of burning coal.
– Is overturning decisions made my County Councils like Northumberland (Halton Lea Gate site) and is forcing opencast coal mining on communities that don’t want them.
– Has ignored the views of its own scientific advisors and is about to commit the UK to at least another 20 years of burning natural gas, which will be obtained predominantly from fracking (in order to limit our dependence on imported gas) using new power stations with no CCS technology (even if and when it becomes available).
Although I have some sympathy with local residents who don’t want opencast coal mining in their neighbourhood, restoration techniques are now much better than they used to be. Therefore, the reason these developments should be opposed is not because of their temporary effects on local communities (as unpleasant as they may be). These developments should be opposed because they are perpetuating the environmentally unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources; and increasing the financial burden that will fall on future generations trying to preserve a reasonably-hospitable environment here on planet Earth.
Therefore, although I am (or have been) a Conservative voter, I find this position hard to justify because David Cameron and George Osborne have proven themselves to be entirely in the pocket of big business and – even when confronted with the folly and/or illegality of what they are doing – they refuse to change course.
In short, I think they are in denial about the nature, scale and urgency of the need for us to decarbonise our energy generation systems as fast as possible and, as a consequence, I think power cuts will be only the beginning…
This week, I was very pleased to discover that some of my recent output has been listed on a Weekly round-up of blogosphere posts related to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) on the Science blogs website. However, I was even more grateful when I saw mention, within that round-up, of a very significant event in British politics last week.
Over recent months, I have posted quite a lot of stuff about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and carbon capture and storage (CCS); culminating in the items I posted last week (discussed below). It is therefore ironic that I did not notice the row that erupted last week as a result of a public letter to the Secretary of State for the Energy and Climate Change (Ed Davey) from the Chairman of the government’s relevant independent advisory body (the Committee on Climate Change [CCC]) – former Conservative Environment Minister John Selwyn Gummer (now Lord Deben) – as publicised in The Guardian last Thursday.
The UK government published a draft Energy Bill in May this year, on which I commented at the time – in ‘A very unsustainable Energy Bill’. At that time, I was concerned about the stated aim of the UK government to become less reliant upon imported gas. More specifically, I was (and am) concerned that it is planning to replace this with oil shale gas (from fracking); rather than encouraging people to get off the grid altogether by investing in micro-generation (such as solar panels).
It seems, therefore, that anticipation had been growing that an announcement would soon be made that the UK is likely to remain reliant upon new gas-fired power generation (without CCS) well beyond 2030. If the UK pursues this strategy it will do so despite the following:
– 1. The widespread international agreement – of organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA); numerous scientists such as James Hansen; and even influential (and formerly sceptical) economists such as William Nordhaus – that humanity can no longer afford to delay decarbonising its energy generation systems.
– 2. The agreement reached at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 that – in energy generation a least – fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel use both need to be phased out.
– 3. The fact that the Earth has five times more conventional fossil fuel than is now considered safe to burn; and therefore now is not the time to be finding a whole load more unconventional fossil fuels to burn as well.
This all makes me wonder if George Osborne has been paying too much attention to what libertarian ideologues like Richard Lindzen are probably telling him. Wherever this transparently intellectually incoherent policy is coming from, it was clearly this refusal to phase out fossil fuel use (now that we know it is causing ACD) that drove Lord Deben to publish the CCC’s letter last Thursday. In it, he began by stating:
Extensive use of unabated gas-fired capacity (i.e. without [CCS] in 2030 and beyond would be incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets. These are, of course, designed to balance the costs and risks of meeting long-term objectives and they require significant investment in low-carbon power generation over the next two decades…
What is even more surprising is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to respond so promptly – quite possibly due to the CCC’s suggestion that pursuing gas (from fracking) instead of equivalent investment in renewable energy could be illegal because (as the CCC letter continues):
Unabated gas-fired generation could therefore not form the basis for Government policy, given the need under the Climate Change Act to set policies to meet carbon budgets and the 2050 [emissions reduction] target.
As I made clear on my blog last week, having benefited from an exchange of emails with Professor Robert Mair (on fracking) and with Dr Bryan Lovell (on CCS), I remain convinced that pursuing fracking as a panacea to all our energy problems is insane; but have reluctantly come to accept that we may have to rely upon CCS if we are to avoid significant ACD. However, this is no excuse for doing as George Osborne has done – effectively telling his own independent advisors that, once again, the non-scientist knows what the best course of action is.
Indeed, apart from putting your hands over your ears and shouting “La la la, I can’t hear you!”, there can only one possible reasons for doing as George Osborne has done – he must believe we can continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity and/or doubt the reality of catastrophic ACD if we do not use CCS to prevent it.
I therefore think it is crunch time for the UK’s Coalition government. Prime Minister David Cameron, whom I support on many issues, famously said he wanted to make it “the greenest government ever”. Sadly, it seems to be failing significantly in many ways: In addition to crippling the green revolution at birth – by removing most of the incentives to get individual households to invest in Solar PV panels on their roofs (etc) – it now seems set to pursue energy independence in the form of fracking. As The Guardian concludes:
The argument over the [decarbonisation] target is now likely to reach the top of the government with pressure mounting on Cameron to face down critics of the government’s green policies and adopt the CCC recommendations in full.
On Monday, under the title ‘More fracking madness’, I published a recent exchange of emails I sent to and received from Professor Robert Mair (who chaired the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering committee that recently investigated the safety of fracking). On Wednesday, under the title ‘Making sense of madness’, I published an exchange of emails I had with Schalk Cloete (oneinbillion blog) on the sustainability issues surrounding carbon capture and storage (CCS).
It was therefore a happy coincidence that I should happen to read in this month’s Geoscientist magazine a book review by the former President of the Geological Society, Dr Bryan Lovell (son of the World-famous astrophysicist Sir Bernard Lovell who died recently). This prompted me to write to the Editor of the magazine and, the rest, as is often said, is now history (or at least it has been published on the Society’s website). Therefore, today, in reproducing this exchange (between me and Dr Lovell), the story comes full circle as I finally come to terms with the essential inevitability of CCS as our most likely means of avoiding climate catastrophe… Hence the title ‘Embracing the madness’…
My email to the Editor:
Sir, I have just read, with great interest, Bryan Lovell’s review of a new book Clean Energy, Climate and Carbon by Peter Cook, in Geoscientist. Having double-checked, it would seem that the esteemed former President of the Society is very much a climate change realist. Nevertheless, Dr Lovell would appear to agree with Cook that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) must now be an essential part of human strategy for avoiding excessive climate change. This would appear to make my hope that CCS not be relied upon as an excuse for perpetuating “business as usual” look hopelessly optimistic.
However, in view of the email I sent to Professor Mair and his reply (i.e. both published on my blog yesterday), I would be extremely interested to know if and/or how Dr Lovell thinks we can avoid tracking inevitably towards at least 4 Celsius increase in global average temperatures if we make no attempt to phase-out fossil fuel use and or leave some of them in the ground?
Dr Bryan Lovell responded very promptly, as follows:
Sir, Martin Lack reassuringly describes me as a climate change realist. He and I agree that, realistically, it is unwise to continue to burn fossil fuels and to dump the carbon directly into the atmosphere once we’ve had the use of it. We can also agree that, realistically, coal and gas will continue to be burnt in large quantities for many years to come, to provide the electricity so eagerly consumed around the world. The carbon that is produced by burning that coal and gas cannot with impunity be dumped into the atmosphere. So we need to capture and store that carbon, by developing a 21st Century CCS industry on a scale comparable to that of the 20th Century oil industry.
This prospective CCS industry is nothing like ‘business as usual’. Its development will require the adoption of an attitude that the fossil-fuel industry is no more simply the problem then we, the consumers of its products, are simply the problem. Carbon is the problem. Managing the transition we now have to make to a low-carbon economy is going to be even trickier without CCS. CCS is going to be even trickier without the skills of the fossil-fuel industry: new business and new thinking.
Although it has not been published, in addition to thanking Dr Lovell for responding so promptly, I felt it was necessary to clarify my original meaning (as I suspect he misunderstood):
I should apologise for the way in which I use the phrases “status quo” and “business as usual”. I say this because I did not mean to infer that I think CCS will be anything less than the revolution you describe: My concern is that CCS has been used by the fossil fuel lobby to perpetuate the moral and/or social acceptability of fossil fuel use; and to put off the day when fossil fuel subsidies (ten times those given to renewable energy) are eliminated.
This then remains our greatest challenge: To establish a level playing field. However, here we are in severe danger of going around in circles because, unfortunately, this is going to be very hard This is because (can you guess?)…