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Shale – don't know what it is, we'd better stop it

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Comment MPs will take another look at shale gas next Tuesday. It's about time.

New techniques of unlocking gas from rock thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface have potentially opened up huge amounts of cheap energy; the International Energy Authority recently ripped up its previous estimates of global gas reserves to predict that there was sufficient gas from shale reserves to meet the next 250 years of demand.

It's a game-changer, for sure.

No technology in the world is as disruptive as shale gas right now. Shale disrupts the conventional gas and oil businesses by decoupling the price of natural gas from the price of oil. It disrupts the petroleum industry by providing a cheap alternative to petrol: UPS is putting liquified natural gas-powered trucks into its fleet. It disrupts both by allowing new entrants into the field, which upsets the existing cartels, and state monopolies.

It disrupts the nuclear industry by providing energy buyers with a supply that's cheap and reliable – with no subsidies required. Politically, shale frees much of Europe from a dependence on Russia's gas production. It also disrupts the environmental movement in several ways, making the high subsidies that investors demand to build ecologically correct renewable energy, such as wind and solar, hard to justify. An economy dependent on gas, rather than coal, cannot but help but lower its carbon footprint.

With so many vested interests upset by shale, no wonder it's so popular!

Yet the economic benefits of an abundance of cheaper energy can't be overstressed: cheaper manufactured goods, energy independence, and an end to the obscenity of fuel poverty, where the poorest freeze – and pay to subsidise solar panels on the roofs of the wealthy. There are 5.5m UK households today living in "fuel poverty" – and thanks to carbon emissions targets and renewables commitments, the average household will have to pay £300 extra every year to 2020.

Now MPs on the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Sub-Committee are to examine shale gas in the UK next week, and they've helpfully published their agenda, which gives us several clues to their thinking. Here it is.

  • What are the prospects for shale gas in the UK, and what are the risks of rapid depletion of shale gas resources?
  • What are the implications of large discoveries of shale gas around the world for UK energy and climate change policy, including investment in renewables?
  • What are the risks and hazards associated with drilling for shale gas?
  • How does the carbon footprint of shale gas compare to other fossil fuels?
  • Is there a case for calling a moratorium on shale gas exploration until the local pollution and global-environmental impacts are better understood?

We don't know shale gas is, but whatever it is, we'd better stop it.

There are undoubtedly negatives to shale gas exploration. Surface level contamination has occurred, and will undoubtedly occur again – but so far these have been wildly exaggerated. In the most famous scene of the agitprop documentary Gaslands, a householder shows off a flaming water tap. When state inspectors examined it for the cause, it was traced to surface matter.

The great regulatory beast has been left behind, and wants to catch up. The US environmental regulator the Environmental Protection Agency has had to drag information from the fracking service providers, although all have now complied. But at the end of the day, a rational cost-benefit analysis must weigh up the costs and benefits, and taking into account the cost of compensation and regulatory oversight, the benefits of cheap clean gas far outweigh the costs.

The MPs' agenda highlights the problem of yoking together two quite different agendas. The goals of a coherent energy policy should result in bags of cheap energy, with the human goal of a more prosperous, productive and less miserable population. A climate change policy seeks to cut carbon emissions. The two don't always coincide, and shale gas throws these choices into stark relief. Eventually, though, UK electors will decide which they value the most. ®

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