Gas is the new battlefield in the debate about climate change and energy security.
Yesterday Energy Secretary Ed Davey gave the go-ahead to Cuadrilla to resume its exploration of shale gas resources in Lancashire, despite concerns about the technique known as fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing). This technology, which involves shattering hard shale rocks under pressure to release gas, was suspended after it was linked to two earth tremors near Blackpool.
In Scotland too, rocks deep beneath the surface may hold untold stores of shale gas and so far the Scottish Government has opted for a wait-and-see approach. Shale gas is unlikely to be the game-changer it has proved to be in the US, where in a remarkably short period the country has become virtually self-sufficient in gas. However, as Mr Davey emphasised yesterday, it could contribute significantly to Britain's energy security and balance of payments at a time when North Sea gas reserves are decreasing.
The main arguments against fracking are environmental. In the US some fracking has been associated with the pollution of ground water and escapes of methane, as well as minor seismic activity. There are also fears that it could divert capital investment, public attention and political energy away from renewables. Also, why exploit it when we are trying to wean ourselves off fossil fuels?
Yet paradoxically, shale gas could be useful in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, at least in the short-term before renewables are up and running in sufficient quantities. That is because emissions from gas are far lower than for either coal or oil. That is why even Friends of the Earth envisages a role for gas-fired power stations for the next few years. Certainly it would be preferable to burn British gas than spend more and more importing it from Russia and Qatar.
In addition, it would increase Britain's energy security and help bridge the trade gap. And it could prove a useful source of tax revenue for the Exchequer. It is preferable to burn shale gas than either continue to rely on coal or render ourselves vulnerable to the volatile international gas market.
This newspaper believes that, in these uncertain times, energy diversity is essential. It would be as foolish to dismiss shale gas as to outlaw low-carbon nuclear, although both require stringent regulation and monitoring, even if at significant cost.
At the same time, for both economic and environmental reasons, it would be foolish to become over-dependent on gas. Talk of a new "dash for gas" is irresponsible if Britain is to meet its climate change obligations. A report from the Committee on Climate Change this week warned that over-reliance on gas could add £600 a year to energy bills in the long term.
As a minor contributor to UK energy in the short to medium-term, home-produced gas ought to be welcome, provided it can be extracted safely. It is likely to be cheaper and more flexible than renewables, an important consideration on the day the Scottish Government confirmed the number of households in fuel poverty had risen to close to 30%.
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