Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dash for shale gas will not help save the climate or lower prices

how fracking works

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for shale gas, is said to be seismically "safe" in the UK, but critics say it will impede us from meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets and stall investment in renewables. 

DECC has published an independent evaluation of the seismic risks from hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, which argues that it is safe as long as certain basic precautions are put in place.

The report, now out for comments from the general public, was commissioned following two earthquakes last year with magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 in the Blackpool area, which subsequent investigations linked to hydraulic fracture treatments in nearby underground layers of Bowland shale by Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. as part of their commercial project to extract natural gas from the shale.

Cuadrilla subsequently provided DECC with a technical report, which has now been analysed by independent experts in the fields of seismology, induced seismicity and hydraulic fracturing: Dr Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey; Professor Peter Styles of Keele University, and Dr Christopher A. Green, GFRAC.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Dr. Baptie said that there is only a "very small" risk of damage from earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking), and the highest would be around magnitude three, which poses no greater danger than that from conventional coal mining.

He said that as long as the four main recommendations of the report were adhered to then there would be minimal risk, adding that there was "no evidence of structural damage from these kinds of earthquakes".

The report was welcomed by Mark Miller, chief executive of Cuadrilla. "We are pleased the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume," he said.

DECC’s chief scientific advisor David MacKay commented that “if shale gas is to be part of the UK’s energy mix we need to have a good understanding of its potential environmental impacts and what can be done to mitigate those impacts”.

He added that the report “suggests a set of robust measures to make sure future seismic risks are minimised - not just at this location but at any other potential sites across the UK”.


The recommendations are that:

  • the hydraulic fracturing procedure should include a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage

  • an effective monitoring system to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic events should be part of any operations

  • future fracking operations should be subject to a “traffic light” control regime, similar to that recommended by Cuadrilla’s consultants

  • unusual seismic activity, even at lower levels than the magnitude 1.7 proposed by Cuadrilla, should be carefully assessed before operations proceed.

For any future operations elsewhere in the UK the review recommends suitable actions to assess the seismic risk before any operations take place, including:

  • establishing the background seismicity in the area of interest

  • characterisation of any possible active faults in the region

  • modelling to assess the potential impact of any induced earthquakes.

The report was criticised by Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth and chairman of Action for Renewables (A4R), who cited reports from Deutsche Bank and others which showed that the environmental impact of fracking is "comparable to coal and possibly worse", partly due to so-called "fugitive emissions" of methane from drilling sites.

Government support for fracking would cast "grave doubt" over the government's legal obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, he said, adding that money would be better put into financing and developing renewable sources of energy.

Furthermore, he said that shale gas would be much more expensive than conventional gas to extract because of the precautionary measures required, and asked who would pay for the damage should anything go wrong.

Joss Garman, Greenpeace’s senior energy campaigner, agreed that "there’s absolutely no indication that fracking for shale gas will reduce soaring household energy bills, while scientific studies suggest that this kind of gas could be as polluting as coal. This would also be a major blow for the British renewable energy industry, which would see investment hijacked by a new dash for gas."

Rhian Kelly, CBI Director for Business Environment policy, welcomed the report, arguing that “shale gas could unlock significant new infrastructure investments, help meet our carbon reduction goals and create many new jobs around the UK.”

But Garman worried that this could be at the expense of jobs in the renewables industry. "Our home-grown renewable energy companies could provide thousands of jobs and develop world-leading cutting-edge technologies,” he said.

Speaking for the industry, Richard Moorman, CEO of Canadian company Tamboran Resources which has permits to operate in Northern Ireland, said that fracking is "perfectly safe if properly regulated", and that in his experience of fracking in Arkansas, US, accidents occurred at a low rate of one in every thousand drilling operations.

He said that it is likely to be at least two years before any commercial shale gas is extracted in the UK.

Other reports are still to be received, including one on the danger of pollution of watercourses from the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, and, even if drilling goes ahead, it is unlikely to provide a source of gas cheaper than current prices.

The risks of hydraulic fracturing

There are two problems with flushing methane gas from shale, a rock with low permeability.

Firstly, flowing liquids don't easily penetrate and open cracks through which the gas can be extracted, therefore the fluid used has to contain a range of chemicals to dissolve the rocks and create cracks in order to increase the amount of rock in contact with the fluid, and it has to be introduced under high pressure; up to 1,000bar or 15,000psi.

Secondly, this process produces sludge which can clog the cracks, which requires the addition of further chemicals; however, many of the hundreds of chemicals that may be used for this purpose have the potential to leak into the surrounding environment and contaminate water courses.

Their impact depends upon the geology of the area, and each operation would require its own environmental investigation before being allowed to proceed.

If the casing of the well below the drilling platform isn't properly sealed, fluid can leak back up the well bore and reach strata nearer to the surface, which may be used to supply drinking water or feed natural springs.

Even at depth, the release of fracking fluids might still cause contamination over the longer term, should the chemicals be lighter than water and given the presence of geological faults through which they could rise.

Campaign group Free Range Network has produced a report on hydraulic fracturing and unconventional gas in the UK, which attempts an assessment of whether the available resources in the UK could make up for the loss of North Sea production in coming years.

It estimates that in order to achieve this “we'll need to find another three fields over the next two decades. Taking the statements from Cuadrilla Resources in the press, its eight fields would require up to 6,400 wells to be drilled – far in excess of the couple of hundred analysed by DECC in their strategic environmental appraisal of the 14th Licensing Round".

It, too, says the price wouldn't be cheap and it would not provide the bonanza some in the industry have been touting.

The engineers' response

The Institution for Gas Engineers & Managers (IGEM) hosted a conference on the subject at Durham University on 28 March, off the back of its report: Shale Gas – A UK Energy Miracle?

This recommends that fracking liquid storage tanks should be able to withstand a once-in-a-300-year weather event. It also recommends the need for one body to bring all the standards together.

At the meeting, Tony Grayling, head of climate change at the Environment Agency, told the audience the organisation had made visits to established test sites and the UK had to learn lessons from the poor management of environmental standards across in North America.

He told the conference that in the UK “there is no significant, extraordinary ground water risk. The water aquifier tables are several kilometres above” where Cuadrilla is planning to drill.

Like IGEM, he recommends that flowback water is stored in double-lined tanks.

"We need to take the risks seriously and the necessary powers, as we are conscious that public confidence is low,” he said.

Huw Clarke, the exploration geologist from Cuadrilla Resources, told the meeting that “our wells are some 7,000 ft away from the water table”.

He added that each well has seismic censors and investment in 3D seismic imaging will search for fault lines, reducing the impact of small shocks.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Civil war breaks out in Government over green policies

Latent divisions in the coalition government have broken out into a war of words, as Tories challenge the Green Deal and wind farm plans, in a bid to influence next session's legislative programme before May 9th's Queen's Speech.

Energy minister Greg Barker appeared to signal a shift in policy over the weekend by saying that Britain already has “the wind we need” either being built, developed or in planning. “It’s about being balanced and sensible,” he said.

“We inherited a policy from the last government which was unbalanced in favour of onshore wind. There have been some installations in insensitive or unsuitable locations - too close to houses, or in an area of outstanding natural beauty,” he added.

Senior Conservatives in the Coalition are plotting how to reduce support for onshore wind power, with one eye on their electoral chances in rural areas.

They have seen Chris Huhne's resignation as an opportunity to take curb green policies. "Chris Huhne’s zealous ambition is being reined back,” one top Whitehall source is reported as saying. “There’s already enough [wind farms] being built and developed."

But a Department for Energy and Climate Change spokesperson said there was ‘no U-turn on wind farms’, adding: ‘This is not a change in policy.”

Telegraph campaign

Leading Conservatives have also launched a campaign to kill the Green Deal in the Telegraph, which seems to be running a persistent campaign against the coalition government's energy policies.

The paper reports the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, the housing minister Grant Shapps, and the employment minister Chris Grayling, calling the Green Deal a stealth “conservatory tax” on householders. They claim it will add around 10% to a typical bill for home improvements, But they fail to consider the longer term benefits of reduced energy bills.

"We don't think this should extend to a 'conservatory tax' situation. The compulsion elements are over-the-top," a Government source said.

The ministers called for the entire Green Deal to be scrapped. The Sunday Telegraph quoted them as saying: "The Green Deal was Chris Huhne's baby. He has gone now and it is the right time to kill it off. Forcing people to pay thousands of pounds for unwanted extra home insulation is the last thing hard-pressed families need at the moment. It's madness."

A new Energy Bill containing the latest policies will form part of the Queen’s Speech, and is due in a few weeks' time.

DECC fights back

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg hit back, calling reports that householders would have to pay thousands of pounds extra to do “simple things like insulating their homes”...“ludicrous scare stories”.

Chris Huhne has also responded, saying, "Top Tories should stop posturing on green plans that help hard-hit households".

And Greg Barker has called the attacks on the Green Deal "bonkers", and pointed out that the policy was in the Coalition agreement and had been developed by the Conservatives in opposition.

Nick Clegg only last week mounted a strong public defence of the Green Deal, promising customers will never be "charged more for the home improvements than we expect them to make back in cheaper bills. Plus the charge is attached to the property, rather than the person, so if you move, you stop paying. That is maximum affordability, with savings that should more than cover costs."

The facts about the coalition's green policies

It's worth restating a few salient facts around the issues of the coalition’s climate change and energy policies:

  1. 463 MPs voted for the Climate Act, and only three against it.

  2. Other countries are following suit, with Mexico passing a Climate Act next month, and Germany and Australia also having targets to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

  3. The clean technology sector is one of the few areas of the economy experiencing growth, and the CBI has consistently called for no further changes to energy policies to give investors confidence.

  4. The impact of green policies on energy bills is minimal: according to Ofgem, the cost of nuclear decommissioning is about £266 per year for a UK household, whereas support for solar power adds £2 per year, or about 0.15% of the UK average dual fuel bill.

On the Green Deal:

  1. The standard assessment procedure (SAP), used to calculate how much households will save from the Green deal measures, is as accurate as possible, as it is based on a survey of thousands of homes and is being constantly updated to take account of the latest research and experience of energy saving measures.

  2. The cost of the measures will be calculated to be less than the savings achieved by the measures applied, known as the 'golden rule', and will be financed by applying a pre-agreed charge to the building's electricity bill.

  3. The government says that there will still be enough cash left over for occupiers to experience reduced bills as well.

  4. The length of the repayment period can be adjusted to make the golden rule work; up to 25 years in some cases.

  5. Assessment can only be done by UKAS-accredited certification companies in much the same way as EPCs are presently done, i.e. by a competent person who has been trained and is certificated.

  6. Assessments will not be free, but usually carried out as a loss-leader by companies who are also providing the installations. It’s therefore only fair that they will be given some of the resulting work.

  7. There will be a requirement for schemes to comply with British Standard EN 45011, and for installation to be under a Publically Available Standard now under consultation (PAS 2030) which will define the skills required through National Occupational Standards (NOS).

The Green Deal will be attractive to large organisations, but the processes for subcontracting specialist installation services, in compliance with the code of conduct, still needs to be developed.

A number of local authorities are gearing up to deliver Green Deal schemes themselves, including Birmingham City Council and a cluster in the North East led by Newcastle City Council.

Councils are trusted and in a prime position to accept this responsibility. They would also be in a good position to recover the loan repayments, as they already have a property-based system in place for council tax collection.

The government is currently putting together a system of checks, guarantees and insurance schemes to try and ensure the quality of the work.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

European climate policy in disarray as carbon crashes

Drax power station and the falling price of carbon

An ineffective record low price for carbon, the dilution of energy efficiency targets, and failure to agree on which nations should have seats at a UN meeting are contributing to an impression that Europe can no longer lead the world on climate change policy.

1. Carbon price collapse

On Monday, the price of carbon fell to an all-time low following the release of new figures showing lower than expected greenhouse gas emissions last year from the 12,000-plus facilities registered under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

1.7 billion tonnes were emitted in 2011, down 2.45% on the previous year, compared with a total allocation of 1.63 billion tons. Combined with a surplus the previous year due to over-allocation, there is now an accrued total surplus above the current ETS carbon budget of 355 million allowances, including auctions.

The highest emitting manufacturing sectors, steel and cement, have amassed the largest of these surpluses, amounting to 279 million and 195 million credits each.

In the UK, the largest single emitter is still the Drax coal-fired power station, at over 21.47 million tonnes, well over its allocation of 9.5 million tonnes.

As a result of the market glut, allowances are currently trading at €6.39, which represents a 61% fall in the price over the last year. Most analysts now agree that the European carbon market will be oversupplied up to at least 2020, without intervention.

Observers renewed their calls for urgent action by European lawmakers to set aside a number of permits to bolster the market, but this was still seen as unlikely.

“Unless EU governments come up with a surprise decision to strongly support the set-aside or ambitious mid-term emission- reduction targets, I don’t see prices moving up much over the coming months,” Tuomas Rautanen, head of regulatory affairs and consulting at carbon asset management company First Climate.

Damien Morris, Senior Policy Adviser from the climate campaign group Sandbag said: "The window is rapidly closing to fix the ETS before the next trading period commences in 2013". He said it was therefore "imperative that the European Council move swiftly ... to withdraw ETS allowances.”

But Per Lekander, UBS’ global head of utilities research, said that prices would probably have to fall about €3 before European legislators would act.

2. Compromised energy efficiency targets

The latest proposed draft from Denmark on the Energy Efficiency Directive contains further weaknesses following previous drafts which failed to attract universal approval.

As a result, the Coalition for Energy Savings estimates that it would close as little as one third of the gap to Europe's 20% energy saving target for 2020.

The new draft rejects MEP's requests for binding national targets and weakens nearly all the binding measures in previous drafts, including:
  • requirements to renovate public buildings
  • long-term targets for cutting energy use of the European building stock
  • national end-use saving targets, which would result in no genuine improvement or even standards lower than those in the Energy Services Directive which the EED will replace
  • targets for the public procurement of more efficient combined heat and power generation.

Ambassadors are meeting today to try and agree on a negotiating position in preparation for discussions in the European Parliament on 11th of April.

Stefan Scheuer, Secretary General of the Coalition, accused the Council of "a lack of responsibility in light of the energy challenges Europe is facing".

"Exploding energy costs, high unemployment and a slow economic recovery call for urgent investment in energy efficiency within Europe rather than spending money on energy imports", he said.

"Member States need to focus less on finding ways to wriggle out of taking action and more on how to agree on effective legislation."

3. Squabbling over Climate Fund

Finally, at the end of last week, European ambassadors failed to agree on who should have a seat on a committee which will negotiate directly with developed countries about the allocation of funds to help them fight climate change, which meant that now none of them will take part.

They had until 31 March to reach agreement on the allocation of seats between member states on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Green Climate Fund (GCF), but couldn't do so.

Thirteen of the 27 member states wanted a seat to ensure they had a say in the funding decisions of the $100 billion Green Climate Fund, that was agreed at Cancun in 2010.

Britain, France, and Germany were lobbying for a permanent seat in addition to an alternating seat that each would share with another country. But this idea was apparently stonewalled by Germany and Poland, who both demanded exclusively non-rotational seats, according to an anonymous source.

“(The Commission) has tried to rob us so many times before,” a Polish government source told Reuters. “This time around we want to wear a second jacket - just in case - and let nothing we are eligible for miss us.”

Members of the European bloc will now have to negotiate directly with other developed countries to determine the makeup of the governing board.

“Despite willingness to compromise and adequately share board seats, it has, unfortunately, not been possible to come to an agreement within the EU,” said Danish presidency spokesman Jakob Alvi.

“It shows that the EU unity we had in Durban has been eroded and that could damage Europe’s image in global climate change talks.”

Coal-addicted Poland is particularly to blame for Europe's collective failure to agree both on the energy efficiency standards and this issue. It also recently succeeded in vetoing Brussels’ carbon reduction roadmap.

All these developments give an impression elsewhere of a waning of Europe's confidence in leading the world on fighting climate change.

This corresponds to an increased assertiveness in climate change discussions amongst the richer developing countries, especially Brazil, India and China, and to a lesser extent other South American and African nations. But that is far from a guarantee of effective action.

Energy-from-waste set for expansion

energy from waste
An anaerobic digestion (AD) plant in Scotland.
Waste management group Shanks has announced that it has signed a £750 million contract with the BDR Waste Partnership (Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Councils) to build a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) and anaerobic digestion (AD) plant in Rotherham in South Yorkshire, with the capacity to treat 265,000 tonnes of municipal waste per year.

The contract will be executed by 3SE, a partnership between Shanks and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), which holds a 25% stake in 3SE and will use half of the solid recovered material produced in the MBT for power generation.

In the UK, and globally, energy-from-waste, whether from AD, gasification or incineration, is experiencing long-awaited growth.

On Friday, the UK Government won a long-standing battle with protesters against an incineration plant in Cornwall when a court of appeal upheld Secretary of State Eric Pickles' judgement to grant planning permission for SITA UK's £117 million waste to energy facility in St Denis.

The Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre (CERC) will now go ahead and be able to treat some 240,000 tonnes of non-recyclable residual waste each year, generating around 16 MW of electricity.

The facility had been granted planning permission by Mr Pickles in May last year but this was challenged by the Cornwall Waste Forum, with the High Court in London up holding their challenge last October. Eric Pickles appealed this decision and has now won.

However, opponents have vowed to take the fight to Europe. Campaigner Ken Rickard said: "We've already started exploring various avenues. It's not the end, the fight goes on, even to Europe."

A rearguard battle is also going on to prevent the construction of an incinerator in King's Lynn, Norfolk. However construction of this does seem likely following Defra officials advising West Norfolk Council last week that its legal challenge stands no chance of succeeding.

Last November, environment secretary Caroline Spelman decided to award Norfolk County Council £91m in waste infrastructure credits to build the energy-from-waste plant at Saddlebow.

Ministers are hoping that new financial support for energy-from-waste and changes to the planning regime will speed up the construction of such plants, especially the uncontroversial AD ones.

Global trend

The global trend is for the construction of far more plants that produce energy from waste, in particular incineration, despite opponents' claims that this reduces the demand for recyclable materials and is less efficient in the long run.

New research by consultants Pike Research says that globally, the market for thermal and biological waste-to-energy technologies will reach at least $6.2 billion in 2012 and grow to $29.2 billion over the next 10 years.

They estimate that in 2011 the world generated over 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste, a figure that will dramatically increase over this period, making an increase in waste-to-energy processes inevitable, such that by 2022 these systems will convert more than 261 million tonnes of waste each year into an estimated 283 terawatt-hours of electricity.

Over 800 thermal waste-from-energy plants currently operate in nearly 40 countries around the world, which in 2011 treated just 11% of MSW generated, compared to the 70% that was landfilled.

Although combustion technologies continue to dominate the market, AD and advanced thermal treatment (ATT) technology deployments such as pyrolysis are expected to pick up as diminishing landfill capacity improves the economics.

Opponents of incineration point to Denmark, which burns the highest proportion of its municipal waste in Europe, 54%, most of which generates electricity, but which lags behind nine countries in its rate of recycling. They say that if it incinerated less it would recycle more.

Waste per person

The picture is reflected across Europe, where Britain came below average in a ranking of European countries of how much municipal waste they sent to landfill in 2010, which ministers believe indicates the need for more energy-from-waste plants to meet Waste Directive targets for landfill avoidance.

The average percentage of such waste sent to landfill in 2010 of all EU 27 countries was 38%, whereas the United Kingdom sent 49%, according to figures just published by Eurostat.

The European average figures were: 38% to landfill, 22% incinerated, 25% recycled and 15% composted.

The United Kingdom's figures for the same year were: 49% to landfill, 12% incinerated, 25% recycled and 14% composted.

The United Kingdom would be more likely to have met or exceeded the average figures for land filling and incineration had energy-from-waste plant proposals not been so consistently opposed by local people. There are no figures for mechanical biological treatment and anaerobic digestion, a relatively new technology.

The amount of waste generated per person varies widely in each country.

Cyprus (just the Greek half, remember) produces by far the greatest amount of waste per head at 760 kg; a great deal for a small island.

Luxembourg, Denmark and Ireland throw away between 600 and 700 kg per person, while the UK is with the Netherlands, Malta, Austria, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal in discarding between 500 and 600 kg per person.

Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Slovenia, Hungary and Bulgaria throw out between 400 and 500 kg, while the lowest amounts were recorded in the countries with the lowest income per head: Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Latvia (under 400 kg per person).

Treatment methods vary

The figures show how the different methods of waste treatment vary across different countries.

Incineration is favoured by Denmark (54% of waste treated), Sweden (49%), the Netherlands (39%), Germany (38%), Belgium (37%), Luxembourg (35%) and France (34%), whereas 10 other Member States incinerate 1% or less of waste.

Recycling was popular in Germany (45% of waste treated), Belgium (40%), Slovenia (39%), Sweden (36%), Ireland (35%) and the Netherlands (33%).

Composting forms a significant percentage of waste treatment in Austria (40%), the Netherlands (28%), Belgium (22%), Luxembourg (20%), Denmark (19%) and Spain (18%).

Recycling and composting together accounted for 50% of waste treated or more in Austria (70%), Belgium and Germany (both 62%), the Netherlands (61%) and Sweden (50%).

However, in five Member States less than 10% of waste was recycled or composted.

A study carried out for the European Commission indicates that full implementation of EU Waste Directive could save €72 billion a year.

“This is why our priority is to improve the implementation of the existing legislation across the EU by bringing landfilling down and increasing recycling,” said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik on Friday.

Progress in Wales

Separately, Wales has just posted figures on how its own waste was processed between October 2010 and March 2011, revealing that just 3,950 tonnes were incinerated for energy.

The Welsh Government prefers recycling to incineration, priding itself on its progress to a Zero Waste Wales target.

The figures reveal that 60,000 tonnes of waste were processed into new materials or products and nearly 50,000 tonnes composted. Less than 10,000 tonnes were recycled and about the same amount sent to landfill.

Environment Minister, John Griffiths, said: “Wales has the highest recycling rate of any UK country and publication of a report like this shows people what happens to their waste. Next year (2012/13) local authorities will have to recycle 52% of waste to comply with new Welsh Government statutory targets“.