Climate Change

As a member of the EU, the UK is obliged to meet certain targets to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions.  The Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 2012 and committed certain signatories, including the EU, ‘to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990 levels in the eight-year period from 2013 to 2020’[1]

In this regard the UK has signed up to the EU Effort Sharing Decision[2] and is bound by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme Directive (2009/29/EC).

Obligations under this legislation have been transposed into UK law in the form of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme Regulations 2012[3]

In addition, the UK has introduced ‘carbon budgets’ under a Carbon Plan to limit the amount of GHG emissions from 2008 to 2027 pursuant to a raft of legislation[4]. 

In view of these commitments, it is important to consider the carbon footprint left by the shale gas extraction process and the burning of shale gas.

The process to extract shale gas is more complex and its scale larger than for conventional gas.  Usually only vertical wells are used to extract conventional gas, whereas shale gas extraction commonly requires the additional drilling of horizontal wells.  In addition, the fracturing process requires machinery to pump considerable amounts of water and chemicals into the well under pressure to fracture the rock.  This is not required in the extraction of conventional gas. 

In 2012 a report commissioned by the European Commission was published entitled ‘Climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU’[5] (“EU Climate Change Report”).  It concluded that (i) ‘emissions from shale gas generation (base case) are 2% to 10% lower than emissions from electricity generated from sources of conventional pipeline gas located outside of Europe (in Russia and Algeria)’[6] and (ii) ‘7% to 10% lower than that of electricity generated from LNG imported into Europe’[7].

However, the EU Climate Change Report does highlight that unless ‘fugitive’ methane emissions from the shale gas drilling and fracturing process are carefully controlled and not vented, the results would be wholly different.  The reason for this is that methane is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide. Where control of methane emissions is lax, overall GHG emissions from shale gas electricity generation would be as high as those from the use of conventional gas carried by pipeline or ship in the form of LNG into Europe[8].  Indeed, in May 2012 Lord Smith, Chairman of the EA highlighted the importance of properly addressing the issue of fugitive methane emissions when extracting shale gas[9].  Furthermore, the Royal Society Report has indicated that ‘there will be a clear regulatory framework for these emissions’ with reference to “green completion” technology’[10].

In comparison to electricity generated from burning coal, the EU Climate Change Report estimates a 41% to 49% reduction in GHG emissions[11] when burning shale gas.

This is corroborated by the fact that new power plants which burn coal in the UK will need to be fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to meet new emissions controls introduced by the DECC in March 2012[12]On the other hand gas fired plants will fall within permitted parameters without the need for CCS technology[13], and this will not be considered for change until 2045.  

Some have criticised this as evidence of the Government’s ‘dash for gas’ policy[14] but in any event shale gas powered power plants will not obviate the UK’s obligation to meet its GHG emission targets referred to above, nor its commitment to ensure that 15.4% of the UK’s electricity is generated from renewable sources by 2016 under the Renewables Obligation Order 2009[15] which implements the EU Renewable Energy Directive[16].

[1] UNFCCC, ‘Kyoto Protocol’ accessed on 14 March 2013; the amendment did cause some controversy – see J. Parnell, ‘Belarus threaten to leave Kyoto Protocol after Doha controversy’ (RTCC, 12 December 2012) 

[2] This decision sets bi-annual GHG emissions for members states – see European Commission, ‘Effort Sharing Decision’ 

[3] see GOV.UK, ‘Closed Consultation: Amendments to UK greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme & national emissions inventory regulations’ (7 August 2013)

[4] e.g. Carbon Budgets Order 2011, Climate Change Act 2008 (Credit Limit) Order 2011, Carbon Budgets Order 2009, Climate Change Act 2008 (2020 Target, Credit Limit and Definitions) Order 2009; see GOV.UK, ‘Reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050’ (13 June 2013) 

[5] AEA, Climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU (30 July 2012) 

[6] EU Climate Change Report., page iv

[7] EU Climate Change Report, page iv

[8] EU Climate Change Report, page iv

[9] R. Webster et al, ‘Shale gas needs CCS and emissions guarantee, says Environment Agency boss’ (The Carbon Brief, 8 May 2012) 

[10] The Royal Society Report, Recommendation 4; green completion technology is referred to in paragraph 2.5 above

[11] EU Climate Change Report, page iv

[12] CCS will be required for any emissions over 450g/kWh

[13] see J. Murray, ‘DECC defends decision to delay gas CCS requirement until 2045’  (businessGreen, 20 March 2012) 

[14] see F. Harvey, ‘“Dash for gas” plans angers campaigners’ (Guardian, 17 March 2012) 

[15] Implementing the UK’s obligation to meet a 15% target by 2020 under the EU Renewable Energy Directive

[16] Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources and amending and subsequently repealing Directives 2001/77/EC and 2003/30/EC (2009) OJ L140/16