Britain Should Embrace Natural Gas Fracking

July 18, 2013

In late June, the British Geological Survey announced the world's largest shale-gas field. The Bowland Shale, which lies beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, contains 50 percent more gas than the combined reserves of two of the largest fields in the United States, the Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale, says Bjørn Lomborg, founder and director the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

The United Kingdom has been reluctant to join the hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") revolution. Yet tapping the Bowland Shale could reignite the British economy and deliver huge cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The British Parliament has approved stringent new measures to reduce carbon emissions by 2020, with the biggest CO2 cuts by far to come from an increase of more than 800 percent in offshore wind power over the next seven years. But offshore wind power is so expensive that it will receive at least three times the traded cost of regular electricity in subsidies -- more than even solar power, which was never at an advantage in the United Kingdom. For minimal CO2 reduction, the U.K. economy will pay dearly.

Consider the three standard arguments for a green economy: climate change, energy security and jobs. As it turns out, fracking does better on all three.

  • Assuming complete success for the United Kingdom's wind power scheme, offshore wind power could produce more than 10 percent of the country's electricity in 2020 and reduce its CO2 emissions by up to 22 metric tons (Mt), or 5 percent, per year.
  • But the cost would also be phenomenal.
  • The United Kingdom would pay at least $8 billion annually in subsidies to support this inherently inefficient technology.

Natural gas is much more environmentally friendly than coal, which continues to be the mainstay of electricity production around the world. Gas emits less than half the CO2 per kilowatt hour produced, and it emits much lower amounts of other pollutants. If the United Kingdom sold its shale gas both domestically and abroad to replace coal, it could reduce local air pollution significantly and reduce global carbon emissions by 170Mt, or more than a third of U.K. carbon emissions. At the same time, instead of costing $8 billion per year, shale-gas production would add about $10 billion per year to the U.K. economy.

Though it is not the ultimate solution, shale gas is greener. Mindless subsidies will not create a green economy; what will is investment in research and development to bring down costs.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "Britain's Gas Chance," Project Syndicate, July 12, 2013.

 

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