Fred Pearce: Fracking – The Monster We Greens Must Embrace
Despite the doubts, shale gas can play a vital bridging role in reducing carbon emissions by ousting filthier coal
Most environmentalists are in no doubt. The new technology of fracking to extract shale gas from the rocks beneath our homes is both a nasty neighbour and a sure recipe for climate Armageddon. Not only that, fracking was pioneered in the US, the gas-guzzling land of climate sceptics.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, uses high-pressure water to shatter shale rocks and release natural gas lurking within. The gas is then piped to the surface. Shale rocks are widespread. But fracking requires lots of water; the toxic sludges brought back to the surface can cause pollution; and the extraction has even triggered minor earthquakes.
However, I can’t bring myself to condemn it. These drawbacks mean there are plenty of places where fracking would not be a good idea, especially in crowded Britain. But that is different from the blanket ban that most environment groups demand.
Their case is that the last thing we need as we fight climate change is more natural gas. Because gas, like coal and oil, is a fossil fuel. Burning it releases carbon dioxide, which traps solar radiation and heats the atmosphere.
Climate scientists believe we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions globally by 80% by later this century to halt global warming. All the evidence suggests they are probably right; so I am sure that ultimately we have to pretty much banish all fossil fuels. Luckily there are plenty of low-carbon alternatives from wind and solar power to – sorry to bring this up – nuclear energy. But does that mean we should ban shale gas?
The thing is, fossil fuels differ. Coal is uniquely nasty. But burning natural gas produces only half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. So shale gas could be part of the solution to climate change, rather than part of the problem.