UK fracking policy founded on scientific fraud, misrepresentation and prevarication

Prime Minister David Cameron visiting an IGas site in Gainsborough on 13th January 2014. Photo: Number 10 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Prime Minister David Cameron visiting an IGas site in Gainsborough on 13th January 2014. Photo: Number 10 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
The key study that justifies the Government's claim that fracking is a climate change 'solution' is based on serious scientific errors, writes Nick Cowern. Not only has the Government failed to correct them, but it is now delaying the publication of a new official report that would reveal the truth - that fracking is considerably worse for the world's climate than coal.
By delaying publication of the CCC report the government is achieving a fait-accompli with fracking before the science that has been used to justify it is officially and publicly refuted.

Some time early this decade the Tory - LibDem coalition began looking into a possible future onshore fracking industry in the UK.

It seemed a promising way to rejuvenate revenues from the offshore oil and gas industry, which was predicting falling North-Sea output.

It was clear from the outset that fracking would be controversial for many reasons. Among other issues, it would increase the amount of fossil fuel 'resources' available, potentially increasing climate change.

It would also compete with emerging renewable energy sources, which were then more expensive and heavily dependent on subsidies. Fracking would need some serious backing.

First, the government requested a report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which was published in 2012. Firm conclusions were few, as little reliable science was then available on fracking impacts, but the societies duly reported that fracking with appropriate safe-guards could be undertaken without excessive risks to health, contamination of water supplies, or local effects such as earthquakes.

Although they said nothing about the impact of industrial-scale shale gas extraction on climate, their report has been used repeatedly by government ministers who claim that "fracking is safe."

The study begins - relative GHG emissions of different fuels

The following year the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) instigated its own report on the likely climate change impacts of fracking. The authors - the DECC Chief Scientist, the late Professor David MacKay FRS, and Dr. Timothy Stone - researched publicly available data and produced their own analysis of fracking's climate change consequences.

The progress of their report was overseen by a DECC Steering Committee, whose exact function was unspecified, and has remained unclear since. The report was immediately followed by a ministerial announcement that fracking would go ahead in the UK.

The main objective of MacKay and Stone's report, from their perspective, was to report the likely climate effects of fracking for natural gas, and to compare it with the climate effects of other fossil fuels. The key comparisons were with coal, conventional gas (not obtained by fracking), and conventional imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). To make these comparisons they needed to answer two vital questions:

  • How much CO2 and methane (the two main greenhouse gases involved in global warming) get into the atmosphere when each energy source is produced and then burned in a power station?
  • What is the global warming effect of methane compared to CO2?

On the first point, the CO2 part of the answer was easy - each carbon atom in the fuel burns to form one CO2 molecule, and in the absence of carbon capture and storage, this ends up in the atmosphere. The methane part was more uncertain, as it was not reliably known how much 'fugitive methane' leaks to the atmosphere during production and distribution.

By delaying publication of the CCC report the government is achieving a fait-accompli with fracking before the science that has been used to justify it is officially and publicly refuted.

As natural gas is primarily methane along with a small amount of other gases, MacKay and Stone needed to estimate what proportion of the extracted gas escapes to the atmosphere. This is where the controversy begins.

Fix #1 - underestimate methane leakage from fracking

In 2013, only a few scientists had investigated fugitive methane emissions from fracking. The UK and US governments had based most of their estimates on data provided by the industry, which not surprisingly showed low emissions. A smattering of more independent scientific publications showed a wide spread of emission estimates, ranging from low up to very large values.

In the US, Professor Robert Howarth at Cornell University had analysed published data and concluded that up to 12% of the extracted natural gas leaked to the atmosphere.

MacKay and Stone took a cautious line. They produced emissions estimates including all the available data, and presented results with and without including Howarth's result, which they described as an "outlier". They implied that Howarth's result was questionable, but that readers should be free to draw their own conclusions.

The conclusion of the report, however, was based on the analysis excluding Howarth's data. This produced a low estimate of fugitive methane emissions, favourable of course to a positive recommendation on fracking.

Unfortunately for this recommendation, it has since been found that fugitive methane emissions in several oil and gas fields in the US are closer to Howarth's estimate than to MacKay and Stone's.

In the Bakken and Eagle Ford areas, recent satellite-based studies show that methane emissions have been at around 10% in energy terms. Levels almost as high were found over production areas in Colorado and Utah. Continent-wide and global measurements further support high emission estimates.

It had clearly been a mistake to reject Howarth's data as an outlier. And it is now an even more serious mistake for the Government not to revise its analysis in line with the best data that's now available.

Fix #2 - understate the global warming potential of methane

The definitive information source on the global warming effect of methane is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reports every five years on fast-evolving climate-change science. In September 2013, the IPCC published its updated estimate of methane's global warming potential (GWP).

Over a 100 year time-frame, the IPCC estimated that the GWP of methane was not 25, as estimated in their 2007 report, but 36: 44% higher. The new estimate took account of atmospheric chemistry and climate feedbacks which had been researched since the previous report in 2007.

At the same time this was happening, MacKay and Stone were evaluating the likely climate impact of fracking. In their analysis, however, they relied on the previous, low GWP estimate from the IPCC in 2007.

In retrospect - at least - this appears extraordinary. Much of the data going into the 2013 IPCC report had been published, and it is seems implausible that there would have been no contact between the UK Chief Scientist and the IPCC team during this period, given the key relevance of the methane GWP data.

Whatever the reason, MacKay and Stone omitted a vitally important piece of information from their study. This led to a more than 30% underestimate of methane's effect on climate, which of course again favoured a positive recommendation on fracking.

The Government's failure to revise its analysis in the light of the IPCC's latest estimate of methane's GWP is not just astonishing. It is arguably a case of scientific fraud, perpetrated on the British people and the global climate.

Result - the precise opposite of the truth

MacKay and Stone concluded that fracking was a substantial improvement on burning coal, and was better for the climate than importing LNG. As I will show, both of these conclusions become highly questionable when more realistic, up to date data are used.

First, let's take their optimistic estimates of fugitive emissions, but apply the appropriate 2013 IPCC data on methane's climate impact. Now, instead of fracking producing less climate change than LNG, it produces more!

The implications of this are scandalous: Westminster politicians have been led to believe to this day that fracking is needed to combat climate change, that shale gas is preferable to coal and that it can act as a bridge to a 100% renewable energy future, which supposedly lies far in the future.

As an example, Baroness Worthington - who is deeply concerned about climate change - has been misled into appealing to the public to accept fracking because this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to imported LNG. In fact, it would increase them.

Moreover, no amount of carbon capture and storage, which Baroness Worthington says is a prerequisite for acceptance of fracking, could prevent fracking's upstream methane emissions.

Disgraceful prevarication? The Climate Change Committee's unpublished report

Earlier this year I researched and prepared a report on the climate impact of fracking for the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), in collaboration with a colleague, Dr Robin Russell-Jones. The CCC has a statutory responsibility to advise the government on UK energy and climate policy, and sets the UK's future carbon targets.

In February the CCC was taking evidence before advising the government on future energy policy in the UK, and we were invited to present our report to them and discuss it with a panel at CCC headquarters in London.

Our report re-analysed the topics addressed by MacKay and Stone in the light of the 2013 IPPC data and the much higher emissions found by independent scientists than had previously been reported by industry. Most significantly, it found that the climate impact of fracking exceeds that of coal on all future timescales of practical interest.

It is our understanding that much of our submission has been taken on board by the CCC, which has since given its advice to the government (on 1st April 2016).

It is interesting, then, that the government is currently sitting on the CCC report, declining to release it as foreseen in the Infrastructure Bill, which requires the government to publish CCC reports as soon as practically possible. One is drawn to the conclusion that the government is not overly enthusiastic about the CCC's report.

Without the CCC report, planners are permitting fracking wells

The fracking industry is currently trying to begin exploration and production tests to establish the potential of fracking in the UK and obtain early production of natural gas.

Recently I, among nearly 100 others, gave evidence at a hearing by North Yorkshire County Council, setting out our substantive objections to an application by Third Energy to frack close to the village of Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.

Our objections were overridden and permission granted, largely on the grounds that government energy policy had to be taken into account in the planning decision. But now campaigners are considering a legal challenge against the decision, based on the Council's alleged failure to adequately consider the climate impacts of fracking.

An appeal by Cuadrilla of a decision by Lancashire County Council to refuse permission to frack is currently being heard prior to a decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark.

In both these cases, it would have been more than helpful to know the CCC's advice on future energy policy. It could be argued that by delaying publication of the CCC report the government is achieving a fait-accompli with fracking before the science that has been used to justify it is officially and publicly refuted.

A spokesperson for DECC told the Guardian yesterday: "The Infrastructure Act clearly requires Government to consider the CCC report properly before responding, and that is what is happening ... We are carefully looking at this report to ensure it is given the proper consideration it is due. It will be published as soon as that process is complete."

But in fact, a reading of the Infrastructure Act does not support DECC's claim. The obligation conferred under Section 49 of the Act (Advice on likely impact of onshore petroleum on the carbon budget) simply states that the CCC's advice must be laid before Parliament "as soon as practicable after each reporting period". The applicable reporting period concluded on 1st April 2016, the day on which the CCC's report was handed to the government.

The unacceptable risk of fossil fuels

It is clear that renewable energy - now no longer an alternative to fossil fuels, but progressively entering the mainstream - is a strong competitor to fracking. It costs less to produce electricity from onshore wind than from gas, and its climate-changing emissions are close to zero, compared to large emissions in the case of gas.

In contrast, it is becoming increasingly clear that fossil fuels present a threat to humanity's future that is way beyond acceptable levels of risk. Global warming has just contributed to the strongest El Nino event in recorded history, accompanied by the widespread death of coral reefs which are thousands of years old, all around the world.

Unprecedented wildfires in Canada, a consequence of global warming, are so large that they are contributing to further global warming by increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere and depositing black carbon onto Arctic ice. Increased melting of Artic sea ice is lowering Earth's average reflectivity, causing further global warming. In the foreseeable future, arctic methane deposits will begin to release larger amounts of methane - a further and dangerous climate feedback.

Finally, fracking is scarcely even of interest for raising tax revenues. As fossil fuel production moves into its final death spiral, low-cost producers like Saudi Arabia and Iran are intent on selling as much product as they can, while they can. Keeping prices low to kill competition from fracking is a key feature of their policies.

Our government needs to recognise that the time for fracking is over, and set its mind to the infinitely more important matter of combating climate change by investing urgently in energy conservation and renewables.



Also on The Ecologist: 'Fracking is twice as bad for climate as coal - will the Climate Change Committee ban it?'

Nick Cowern is Emeritus Professor of Nanoscience / Nanotechnology at Newcastle University and Director of NC Tech Insight Ltd, a scientific consultancy focused on emerging technology and materials, renewable energy, and climate change. His speciality is building fundamental understanding and computer models at the interface between experimental and theoretical science - most recently in the area of renewable energy development and climate change.

In recent months he has given evidence to the UK Committee on Climate Change, spoken at a House of Commons meeting on fracking regulation, and presented evidence on climate impacts of fracking at the North Yorkshire County Council hearing on the application by Third Energy to frack in Ryedale. He strongly supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax (tax the carbon, not the people) - a 'fee and dividend' approach that fosters a successful and sustainable economy and incentivizes low-carbon living.

He has been Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair at Surrey University and has served as group head of the Emerging Technology and Materials Group at Newcastle University.