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Opposition to shale gas is a storm in a teacup

The Times has published my op-ed on shale gas:

It is now official: drilling for shale gas by
fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly
unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious
to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas
industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells
drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can
barely be felt.

The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near
Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an
earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors
happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and
they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground
work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused
by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and
lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The
Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused
by a dam.

So can we now get on and start a home-grown shale gas industry?
The economic and environmental benefits could be vast. Just
consider the effect that shale gas has had in the US. It has
lowered the price of gas to a quarter of that in Europe, thus
slashing the cost of energy, reviving manufacturing, creating jobs,
halting the expansion of expensive nuclear power and cutting carbon

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science concluded in February that the surprise fall
in America’s carbon emissions – by 7 per cent in 2009, probably
more since – was caused largely by a switch from coal to shale gas.
“A slight shift in the relative prices of coal and natural gas can
result in a sharp drop in carbon emissions,” according to Professor
Michael McElroy, who led the study. All over America coal and
nuclear projects are being cancelled or mothballed because of cheap
gas. (Declaration of non-interest: I have interests in coalmining;
so shale gas is bad news for me, but good news for the country and
the planet.) Yet listening to the debate in Britain about
“fracking”, you would think that we were in a different universe.
Tony Juniper, the BBC’s favourite green, was arguing yesterday that
shale gas might increase carbon emissions because of leakage of
methane into the atmosphere. His evidence? A study by Cornell
University that has been discredited. Not only was the study partly
funded by an anti-fracking pressure group called the Park
Foundation but it also made a series of elementary howlers, such as
using a cherry-picked short time frame because methane does not
stay in the air for long and mistaking Russian theft of gas from
pipelines for leakage.

Besides, the proof of the pudding is in the data: shale gas has
already cut carbon emissions in a way that wind, biomass and solar
power have failed to do. Wind still produces less than 0.5 per cent
of all energy and has displaced no fossil fuels. Biomass has been
shown to increase carbon emissions, by encouraging deforestation.
And solar power, for all its local promise in desert countries, is
still an irrelevance globally and a boondoggle nationally.

What about groundwater contamination? This too is mostly
hogwash. Since there is usually a mile of rock between aquifers and
where the fracking happens, contamination from fracking is highly
implausible. More than 25,000 wells have been sunk and there has
only been a handful of potential contamination events, most of
which proved to be natural. Of course, failure of the well casing
or surface chemical spills can happen occasionally, as in any
industry. But the chemicals used in fracking – less than 0.5 per
cent of the solution used to displace the gas – are ordinary
chemicals of the kind that you find under your kitchen sink:
disinfectants, surfactants and the like.

The campaign to stop shale gas proving its case in the market is
political, not scientific. Behind it lies vested interests. The
Russian gas industry, which is alarmed at losing its impending
near-monopoly on European gas supplies, has been vocal in its
criticism of shale gas. The coal and nuclear industries too would
like to see this baby strangled at birth, but have been less

Most of the opposition, though, has come from those with a
vested interest in renewable energy, including the big
environmental pressure groups, which are alarmed that the rich
subsidies paid to wind, biomass and solar may be under threat if
gas gets too cheap and cuts carbon emissions too effectively. Their
entire rationale for subsidy, parroted by their dutiful poodle
Chris Huhne, when Energy Secretary, is that gas would get more
expensive until even wind and solar looked cheap. That was wishful

Even if you do not think carbon emissions are the highest
environmental priority, there is a more fundamental reason why
using gas is good for the planet. No other species needs or uses
it. Every time you grow a biofuel crop, harvest timber for a
biomass power station, pave a desert with solar panels or dam a
river for a hydro plant, you are stealing energy from the natural
world. Even the wind is needed – by eagles for soaring, by bats for
feeding (both are regularly killed by wind turbines). As the only
species that uses gas, the more we use it the more we can leave
other sources of energy for nature.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  shale gas  the-times