Shale gas: an updated assessment of environmental and climate change impacts

Nov 2011  Shale gas: … environmental & climate change impacts – A Tyndall Centre report

The analysis within this new report addresses two specific issues associated with the extraction and combustion of shale gas. Firstly, it explores the environmental risks and climate change implications arising from shale gas extraction. Secondly, it outlines potential UK and global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising from an updated range of scenarios built using the latest predictions of shale gas resources.

Despite these uncertainties, several clear conclusions arise and can be used to inform decisions on the appropriateness or otherwise of developing a shale gas industry within the UK. It is evident that shale gas extraction does not require the high energy and water inputs at the scale of other unconventional fuels, such as oil derived from tar sands. Nevertheless, there are several routes by which shale gas extraction may pose potentially significant risks to the environment. Concerns remain about the adequacy of current UK regulation of groundwater and surface water contamination and the assessment of environmental impact. Although amenable to stringent regulatory control, risks of contamination cannot be fully eliminated.

Turing to the climate change impacts, irrespective of whether UK shale gas substitutes for coal, renewables or imported gas, the industry’s latest reserve estimates for just one licence area could account for up to 15% of the UK’s emissions budget through to 2050. Therefore, emissions from a fully developed UK shale gas industry would likely be very substantial in their own right. If the UK Government is to respect its obligations under both the Copenhagen Accord and Low Carbon Transition Plan, shale gas offers no meaningful potential as even a transition fuel. Moreover, any significant and early development of the industry is likely to prove either economically unwise or risk jeopardising the UK’s international reputation on climate change. Against such a quantifiable and stark evaluation, it is difficult to conclude other than the UK needs to invest in very low carbon energy supply if it is to both abide by its international obligations and support economically sustainable technologies.