Binding carbon commitments and the falling cost of renewables could prove a perfect storm for investors
The UK’s shale gas industry is in a race against time to establish itself before climate change regulations shut it down. As its stands, the frackers are off the pace.
With no wells yet tested for gas flow, the industry does not yet know if large-scale production is possible or what the cost of the gas will be, and it won’t know until 2020 at best. Protests and planning problems have delayed exploration, but the real difficulty is the UK’s legally binding carbon targets.
These essentially rule out gas burning both in power stations and home heating by 2030, unless large-scale carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) is up and running to bury the emissions. Given the lack of progress on CCS to date, that seems a long shot.
It’s not just UK law that is closing fracking’s window of opportunity. Recent analysis led by the University of Manchester concluded: “The substantial use of fossil fuels, including natural gas, within the EU’s energy system will be incompatible with the temperature commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement.” That is a global accord backed by every nation in the world, bar the US.
One early argument for fracking was that gas could replace coal, which is about twice as polluting, and pave the way to a cleaner future. But coal’s decline is already well under way: the electricity generated by coal in the UK was just 2% in the second quarter of 2017, down from 36% in 2012. As researchers at University College put it: “We assess a range of possible futures for the UK and find that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised energy system.”
However, a limited amount of gas might still be used and, with the North Sea fields fast running down, fracked gas from the UK could offset the need for imports. Replacing liquefied natural gas (LNG) would help trim carbon emissions – the energy needed to compress LNG makes it a higher carbon fuel.
But international pipelines provide reliable supplies, that might well be cheaper than fracked gas. Even a recent “perfect storm” of pipeline problems in the North Sea, Norway and Austria only produced a brief price spike, with a “negligible effect on bills”, according to the government.
The UK fracking industry has already bet hundreds of millions of pounds on winning the race to market and so it will slog on, but the final hurdle is the change in the political landscape. Since Theresa May become prime minister in 2016, shale gas has increasingly faded into the background of government policy, outshone by the dramatically falling costs of renewable energy. “Fracking was conspicuous by its absence” from October’s clean growth strategy, according to the Policy Exchange thinktank.
The UK’s shale gas industry remains in the running to be an energy provider at some level over the next decade. But any more slips and it will arrive at the finish line to find all the prizes have already been handed out.