Fracking ban should continue for UK to meet net-zero, CCC warns

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has told the UK Government that restrictions on onshore fracking for shale gas must be continued until scientists have a better understanding of its full environmental impact.

Fracking ban should continue for UK to meet net-zero, CCC warns

The UK government imposed a moratorium on fracking in England in 2019. Scotland and Wales have moratoria in place against hydraulic fracturing.

In a letter sent to Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Wednesday (31 Marc), the CCC provided updated advice on whether onshore petroleum production is compatible with the UK’s carbon budgets and its long-term net-zero target. The last advice was provided in 2016 and, since then, fracking has effectively been banned and the UK has altered its Climate Change Act.  

The letter takes these changes into account and stipulates that Ministers may adopt the CCC’s recommendations on the Sixth Carbon Budget, which would necessitate a ‘front-loaded’ net-zero transition. It states that the three ‘tests’ for gas laid out in previous advice briefings will be more important than ever, the tests being limiting emissions from fracking; capping gas consumption and offsetting production emissions with in-house reductions, elsewhere in the UK. This latter recommendation is designed to prevent fossil fuel firms from excessively relying on offsetting internationally.

According to the letter, the UK’s gas demand will need to fall by two-thirds by 2035 if the UK is to meet its 2050 climate target. Even in the worst-case scenario, demand will fall significantly. This will create financial risks with scaling up fracking in the future.

But the letter does acknowledge that the UK is currently a net importer of fossil fuels and that, even in a net-zero scenario, it will need to import some level of fossil fuels. It states that shale gas fracked domestically could be a better option than importing liquefied natural gas, particularly if producers co-locate fracking sites with carbon capture technologies or link it to the development of hydrogen.

On balance, however, it recommends that the effective ban on fracking remains in place for now. It outlines concerns over seismic activity caused by fracking and the sector’s potential impact on society and nature, stating that an in-depth, independent review on fracking’s full impact should be undertaken. The review should also assess whether CCS and hydrogen production are actually mature enough to co-locate or whether fossil fuel firms would use them as a form of get-out-of-jail-free card.

The report also warns that a review with positive findings may not be cause enough to lift the fracking ban, because fracking is so unpopular. BEIS’s 2020 public attitudes tracker found that only 10% of the public support fracking while 41% actively oppose it.

Aside from fracking, the CCC is also making further recommendations on the UK’s approach to oil and gas in the net-zero transition more broadly. The letter suggests that BEIS’s target to cut emissions from UK offshore production by 50% by 2030 is not ambitious enough. It also warns that planning reviews may not take climate law into account to the extent necessary.

These warnings come after the Government unveiled its £16bn North Sea Transition Deal. The Deal proved unpopular with green campaigners, as it contains measures to continue expanding exploration and drilling.

Turning tide

In related news, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have this week written to Kwarteng, imploring him to do more to grow the UK’s tidal power sector.

The letter comes as the Committee undertakes its inquiries into technological innovations and climate change. It summarises the responses of 70 organisations who, broadly, agree that tidal stream technology could play more of a role in the UK’s net-zero transition.

According to the letter, several that tidal range projects – such as lagoons and barrages – are stuck at the concept stage, without sufficient funding to undertake studies required to secure further backing to assess long-term viability.  

The letter urges BEIS to assess the challenges facing developers and to change its approach, through collaboration with other Departments, as a priority. Doing so would help the UK boost jobs and investment, the letter states, arguing that there is also a “significant” potential for the UK to export tidal technologies and services as other nations embark on their own net-zero transitions.

According to the letter, projects with a combined capacity of 1GW are already under development in the UK. Those giving evidence agreed that this pipeline could be scaled significantly with the right support.

“Tidal power can offer numerous benefits and potential for the UK, which boasts over 7,500 miles of coastline and unrivalled resources to generate reliable power supplies without the vagaries of sunlight or wind,” EAC chair Philip Dunne MP said.

“While we appreciate the Government’s concern about the potential initial cost to the taxpayer to support early-stage tidal stream and tidal range structures, the benefits outweigh the costs. Support for tidal stream is likely to lead to a rapid fall in generating costs similar to, if not steeper than, the fall experienced in offshore wind. Tidal range projects are relatively cheap to maintain once the initial costs are paid off, offering – in the longer term – a potentially affordable contribution to make to the UK’s renewable energy mix.”

The tidal project which had hoped to be the UK’s first, the Swansea Bay initiative, was approved by the now-defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2015. However, BEIS confirmed in 2018 that it would no longer support the project financially, claiming it is not cost-competitive with nuclear or wind.

““For the UK to truly maximise on this potential and cement itself as the world leader in tidal power, the sector urgently needs appropriate and enduring support to be made available including continued funding for research and development as well as revenue support via the Contracts for Difference Allocation Round 4,” EMEC managing director Neil Kermode said.

“This will provide long-term confidence to investors and truly support the commercialisation of the sector. We need to act now, otherwise, we’ll lose our first-mover advantage, just as we did with wind energy back in the 1980s. It would be criminal to let that happen again.”

Sarah George

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