A Tale of Two Martyrs
480 years ago a scholar and theologian named William Tyndale was put to death, by being strangled and burned, for having committed the heresy of translating the bible into English. We have learned from The Bee that today in Preston a close namesake, Stephen Tindale – will address a vigil being held by the fracking front group Backing Fracking – “The event will also be attended by former Greenpeace executive director and co-founder of Climate Answers, Stephen Tindale, who will address the gathering and explain the positive role that shale gas can play in helping Britain and Europe meet their climate change targets.”
[Update – the event in Preston did not take place. Instead, as far as we can ascertain Mr Tindale addressed a crowd of 6 people on the prom in Blackpool. There has been no news coverage of the event at all so we cannot confirm more than what we have seen so far in photos and text published by the group Backing Fracking]
Sadly though, Stephen is not coming to spread enlightenment. One might imagine that Stephen’s history as an ex employee of Greenpeace would mean that he would oppose shale gas extraction, but he is coming to support it. We thought we ought to take a look at what he has said on the subject in the past.
In 2014 Stephen wrote an article on the Climate Answers website
In this article he wrote that shale gas
“is not low-carbon enough for long term decarbonisation, unless it is burnt in power stations with carbon capture and storage (CCS).”
When he made this statement the future of CCS looked bright – The government had a £1bn competition to develop carbon capture and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and environment secretary Ed Davey both expressed their backing for CCS. Mr Davey said in 2014 “It shows the UK’s leading in the low-carbon challenge to tackle climate change and get cleaner energy.”
However, the UK government scrapped the funding for it’s flagship CCS projects in its 2015 spending review in late November, leaving the claim that shale gas can act as a bridge fuel stranded high and dry. Without CCS shale gas would be a bridge to nowhere if even the limited ambition of the 2 degrees target agreed at COP 21 in Paris is to be realised.
So based on what he wrote and what has happened since we know that Mr Tindale must now logically oppose the long term use of shale gas
So what of the short term?
In the same article Mr Tindale observes that
“even without CCS, shale gas is better than coal.”
This of course is a perfect example of a false choice – coal is not the only strategic alternative (although to be fair Mr Tindale might claim it is the only commercially viable alternative available today)
He supports his statement with this:
“Shale gas from properly regulated sites has a lower carbon footprint than coal does.”
However, he clearly did not, even in 2014, have confidence in the regulators in the UK, as he points out that
“The Environment Agency has a good track record in regulating pollution, but needs to be adequately resourced. Like other public bodies in this age of austerity, it is having its resources reduced substantially. The UK government must now accept – and say publicly – that UK shale gas extraction will only be consistent with our climate obligations if it is overseen by a well-funded regulator.”
Following on from this in Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement 2015 it was announced that the already beleaguered environment agency would have its budget slashed by a further 15% whilst DECC would lose 22% over the next 4 years.
Clearly the commitment from government that Mr Tindale said was a pre-requisite is so far from being reality that he must now be extremely concerned.
It should be noted that these are in addition to the austerity cuts about which Mr Tindale expressed his real concerns in his 2014 article . Could he seriously claim today that he is satisfied with the capacity of the regulators in the UK to “properly regulate” the shale gas industry?
In his 2014 article Mr Tindale also stated that
“Shale gas will not prevent investment into renewables.”
but, as we all know, this is precisely what has happened, with the Government announcing their intention to treat fracking applications as Nationally Significant Energy Infrastructure Projects whilst at the same time destroying the solar power industry by announcing a 98 per cent feed-in tariff spending cut. The resulting uncertainty and lack of confidence in the consistency of government policy-making, ironically also threatened investment in shale gas.
His case for short term use of shale as seems to be predicated on the idea that
Gas is less bad in climate terms, and also a more efficient back-up fuel than coal is for intermittent renewables like wind and solar power. The first climate priority is to stop burning coal.
Whilst the subject of fugitive methane emissions, which is the fulcrum on which this argument is balanced, remains hotly debated the evidence emerging from the USA seems to contradict this statement. The original research by Howarth, Santoro and Igraffea which suggested that the footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years has been contested by the industry with contradictory studies being put forward, but recent research (Nov 15) has shown that methane emissions are 90% higher than the previous figure from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. This last paper cannot be easily dismissed by the pro-frackers as it is is the most sweeping study to emerge from the Environmental Defense Fund’s $18-million project to quantify methane leaks from the natural gas industry. It was written by 20 co-authors from 13 institutions, including universities, government labs, EDF and private research firms.
Reacting to this news, Prof Robert Howarth, one of the authors of the report which originally brought this issue to our attention, stated “Using this new information as well as other independent studies on methane emissions published since 2011, and the latest information on the climate influence of methane compared to carbon dioxide from the latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in September of this year, it is clear that natural gas is no bridge fuel.”
By September 2015, however, Mr Tindale in a new article, “The Climate Case For Shale Gas“, appears to have dropped his arguments for long term use of fracking as he has realised that the required CCS is now just a mirage.
Instead he now concentrates his arguments on the premise he stated in the second part of his 2014 article, that shale is cleaner than coal and better than imported LNG.
“Renewables are better. But we cannot afford to make the best the enemy of the good. Only seven per cent of UK energy came from renewables in 2013. Even if the goal is to get all energy from renewables, this will not be achieved any time soon. The only country that has set itself a target to reach 100 per cent renewables for all energy (heating and transport, as well as electricity) is Denmark. The Danes have a reasonable chance of meeting their target year of 2050 because they are well ahead of the UK.”
Shale gas is better for the climate than coal or LNG. The Task Force on Shale Gas, of which I am an advisor, published a report on the climate impact today. This concludes that, provided it is well regulated to minimise emissions of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), fracking does not result in higher emissions than conventional gas extraction does. So shale gas is much better for the climate than coal is. In 2011 three Cornell University professors published a paper arguing that, because of methane emissions during fracking, shale gas is actually worse for the climate than coal is. The task force does not agree; they cite instead a forthcoming paper from the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College which reviews 424 academic, government, industry and NGO publications, and concludes that, even taking account of emissions from the supply chain, shale gas is only 41-64 per cent as climate-damaging as coal is.”
There are several problems with Mr Tindale’s argument here.
The argument on fugitive emissions looks set to run and run, but even an industry PR admitted recently at COP21 that the argument against coal was struggling due to emissions . Margaret Mistry, Head of Sustainability Communication at Statoil, stated:
“Methane emissions and reducing those, I think that the goal there that we’re all working towards as an industry is to demonstrate that natural gas can compete with coal when it comes to climate effects.”
Clearly she realises that they are still working to demonstrate that shale can even compete with coal in terms of full life-cycle emissions – not that it is proven (as Mr Tindale suggests) that “Shale gas is better for the climate than coal”.
Another issue is that there is no chance that fracking will be developed in the UK in time to replace coal. Even the most optimistic forecast don’t foresee extraction at a commercial scale before the early years of the next decade and without CCS it would be impossible to continue beyond 2030 without busting our carbon budgets. Even Mr Tindale agrees with this as he Tweeted this week
It’s ok until 2030, but not for longer than that if UK is to meet carbon budgets
It seems to me that it would be hopelessly naive to expect that an industry which gets into its stride in the early 2020s would then voluntarily agree to be shut down when CCS fails to materialise at a commercially viable scale. Stephen though is full of Panglossian optimism as he tweeted this week that the Government would be able to shut the industry down if necessary
By tightening the Emissions Performance Standard and applying it to existing capacity as well as new.
We’ll wish him luck with that one. We don’t share his faith. Indeed we think being a little bit fracked is a bit like being a little bit pregnant.
Additionally in 2012 the Committee on Climate Change has said that the construction of significant new gas-fired power generation capacity would be “completely incompatible” with the UK’s legally binding climate change targets.
Perhaps most crushingly though his own Task Force on Shale Gas is on record as stating:
“To ensure the longer-term adoption of renewables and low carbon energy, the Task Force is calling on Government to expedite the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and measures should be taken to ring-fence Government energy revenue streams for investment in R&D and innovation in renewables and low carbon energy generation, storage and distribution.”
The government however has recently performed a U-turn on CCS and far from investing R&D and development of renewables it has removed support from them, thus chopping the legs from under what was a burgeoning industry. Only this week, Chris Smith, the head of the Task Force described the government’s reversal of policy on CCS here as “absurd”
This U-turn by the government also led in December 2015, to Professor Paul Younger saying that the government had now “fatally undermined” the case for shale gas. The fact that such a ardent supporter of shale gas should so publicly recant should surely give Mr Tindale pause.
His argument for using indigenous shale gas rather than imported LNG seems to be based on two things. Firstly that LNG is marginally more damaging in terms of GHG (estimates suggest a 10% differential), and secondly that LNG has to come from regimes which he considers unsavoury. He says:
Much comes from Qatar as LNG, which represents unnecessary climate pollution. In future, significant quantities may be imported from Russia, which certainly does represent a security threat. Most of the money paid for Russian fossil fuels ends up in the Kremlin. Putin could not afford to wage his wars without this revenue. Locally produced shale gas could also reduce the need to import gas from countries which do not respect human rights. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy which gives no rights, and little protection, to its many migrant workers. Russia is a sham democracy which tramples on the rights of its own citizens as well as those of its neighbours. And the EU wants to build a pipeline to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. Human Rights Watch report that “torture and ill-treatment persists with impunity” in Azerbaijan.
It is puzzling that Mr Tindale does not seem to be aware of the LNG import and (2 million cubic feet) storage facility being built by Swiss based Ineos at their Grangemouth plant. This is being built specifically to import shale gas from the US. Centrica PLC have already signed an agreement to bring in 85 bcf a year of gas for 20 years from USA. This is a significant development given that annual average imports from Qatar (by far the most important source historically) for the last 5 years have been around 500 bcf and for the last 2 about 350. This volume from the USA looks set to increase as the USA relaxes its previously strict export controls on gas.
Although the USA does have a record on human rights which is open to question, it is not generally considered to be on a par with the regimes which Mr Tindale cherry picks here to sustain his argument.
Finally he states:
But if the objective is to protect the climate, which is what it ought to be, shale gas should be used as part of the low carbon transition. And some of the revenue the government receives from fracking should – as the task force recommends – be used to support renewables, advanced nuclear and carbon capture and storage. This would ensure that a UK shale gas industry enhanced rather than inhibited the development of clean energy.
However, given what we have already seen from our government, the chance that they would channel the revenue from fracking into renewables is vanishingly small.
As a recent (October 2015) report from the Department of Environmental Science, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University states: “Fracking cannot be reconciled with climate change mitigation policies”
Put simply, academic opinion is now clear that unabated gas can never be seen to be either sustainable or green, and Mr Tindale’s continued support for it is putting him on the wrong side of the argument.
As John Ashton, who served as Special Representative for Climate Change for three successive UK Foreign Secretaries, spanning the current Coalition and the previous Labour Governments, says:
“You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time”
Successive governments have failed to address the issue of climate change and have failed to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels. This means we inevitably face some difficult choices over the coming decades, but anyone proposing the answer to be shale gas is clearly asking the wrong question.
William Tyndale’s last words before his death were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” We can only hope that somebody opens this government’s eyes before it is too late.
In the meantime our modern day Tindale still has time to recant and save his reputation from the flames.