Is Fracking in the U.K. Really So Bad?

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The U.K. is turning to natural gas to curb carbon dioxide emissions, but should we still be fracking in a post-Paris world?

By Kate Wheeling

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Anti-Fracking protesters demonstrate outside Lancashire County Hall in Preston, England. (Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, the government in the United Kingdom approved a permit for fracking in Lancashire County. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid approved plans for the oil and gas company Cuadrilla to begin drilling in Lancashire, reversing a previous decision by the County Council. The company could begin drilling as early as April of 2017, and it will be the first time horizontal fracking, which extracts more gas from between layers of shale rock, will be allowed in the U.K. The government’s decision came just one day after the Paris Agreement — a global pact to begin the transition from a world dependent on fossil fuels to one that runs on clean energy — went into effect.

Environmentalists see the fracking approval as a setback. “Fracking goes against everything we need to do to tackle climate change,” Pollyanna Steiner, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, told the BBC. “The government must end its fixation with dirty fossil fuels and focus instead on harnessing the U.K.’s huge renewable energy resource.”

Indeed, the U.K. has set a bold carbon emissions reduction target of 57 percent (below 1990s levels) by 2030. Others see natural gas, which emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it’s burned, as a bridge to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The U.K. is not the only country engaged in this debate. The United States has doubled down on natural gas in recent years, using the cleaner fuel to kick the country’s coal habit. It’s mostly worked: In 2016, natural gas inched past coal as an energy source, providing 33 percent of America’s electricity compared to coal’s 32 percent. As a result, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are down 12 percent below their 2005 levels. That’s good news, considering carbon dioxide is both more prevalent and sticks around longer in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases. But there’s reason to believe that, over the long term, any emissions cuts from natural gas will be canceled out by increased economic productivity, as Michael Levi explained in Democracy:

Cheaper gas boosts economic growth, and a bigger economy means more emissions. Low-priced gas gives an edge to industries that are heavy energy users and big emitters. It also hurts lower-carbon competitors, like renewable energy and nuclear power, just as it harms higher-carbon coal and oil. Cheaper gas also means that consumers will use more of it. Analysts consistently observe that the forces pushing in both directions mostly cancel each other out.

And let’s not forget that natural gas systems are a major source of methane — another greenhouse gas. But replacing coal with natural gas is not a simple trade-off of one greenhouse gas for another. It’s hard to compare the global warming effects of methane and carbon dioxide; atmospheric methane may be more potent, but it sticks around the atmosphere for a shorter time period — mere decades to carbon dioxide’s thousands of years.

But if we’re talking about meeting the goals set out in the Paris Agreement — namely keeping global temperature increases well below two degrees Celsius — then talking about methane emissions may be a distraction. Keeping the temperature peak below two degrees means eventually reducing carbon dioxide emissions to zero. Limiting the emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases like methane could result in a lower peak temperature, but only if the temperature peaks in the next few decades. But that’s unlikely to happen, according to Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford.

“Temperatures will only peak when CO2 emissions cease, which would require an end to gas as we currently use it, and hence an end to fracking,” Allen writes in an email exchange. In other words, it’s not necessarily the increased methane emissions associated with natural gas that would be a hindrance to our post-Paris climate goals, but the fact that gas still causes some carbon dioxide emissions, however much lower they may be than with coal. But Allen is not arguing for an end to fracking necessarily, just an end to excess emissions. He writes:

Unconventional fossil is “new carbon,” that is added on to existing fossil carbon reserves that are already too large to be consistent with the Paris temperature goals unless we work out how to use them without dumping CO2 into the atmosphere — which means capturing CO2 either at the source or recapturing it from the atmosphere (for which there are a number of ideas out there, all still pretty speculative).

Agreeing to move toward a carbon neutral society is a lot easier than taking the necessary steps to get there. As long as governments continue to approve fossil fuel extraction projects without a plan to reign in the associated carbon emissions, the goals of the Paris Agreement will remain out of reach.

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