To frack or not to frack? Well, it's complicated.

Fracking and shale gas are often portrayed as black or white issues, Grealy writes, when in reality there is a need for shades of gray. And the urgency of the climate change issue means that, with natural gas from shale, we have to make a choice between the perfect and the good.

By , Guest blogger

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    A natural gas well is drilled near Canton, in Bradford County, Pa. Glib media reports tend to oversimplify the debate surrounding shale gas, Grealy writes.
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The issue with the shale gas debate in Europe is that too many people are framing it as an either/or problem. It’s neither black nor white, but one crying out for some gray matter.  

A researcher for a BBC program that will remain nameless keeps calling me to sound me out on being on a panel program that purports to answer key environmental issues. The problem is that on a variety of issues, when asked, am I for this, or that, yes or no, the most honest answer I can think of is “That depends”.  It isn’t the answer they want to hear, which explains why you haven’t seen me on that show.

Deep thought is the worst response one can give to many journalists.  A UK journalist, among other problems, exists in a mediaverse where they are overworked and insecure, although not often underpaid it seems. Newspapers especially are on their last legs, with most UK papers seeing collapsing circulation. Newspapers are now like every other industry. Those who remain to actually make the product have to provide a 24 hour news narrative, often assisted by Internet robots or anchorperson-avatars, where everything is a constant story. The story of shale thus appeals to the believers in the confrontational narrative. Journalists blame their readers for demanding simplistic scenarios, laying the cause as arising from an instant vote Big Brother atmosphere. The reality is they, or their editors, are overwhelmed by the constant need to stoke the news monster with stories that can be explained in two minutes or less.  

Recommended: Fracking. Tight oil. Do you know your energy vocabulary?

This goes a long way to explaining both the poverty of debate surrounding shale and how it has been hijacked in the UK media by the big Dark Green Troika of Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth. These Dark Greens, all rabidly science-based on climate, have a fervent attachment to not only catastrophic problems (provides great visuals!), but also magical solutions. No room for doubt in their world. They want to leave gas in the ground. Which is just what the news industry wants: That can be said in one talking head shot. Apart from confusing the production issue, Deep Greens, the purist wing, just don’t get the consumption story. Good news of declining carbon levels in the US or moderating energy growth in China are pushed away as being short term blips caused by the economy. The neo-Malthusians never seem enthused about the actual success of energy efficiency for example, even though they often promote it’s benefits  It disrupts their essential narrative of a world where ever upward energy use leads to inexorable price rises which the promote as giving renewables the air of inevitability. I've said it for five years now:  Cheap gas, or even gas that isn't going anywhere near laughable figures of $20+ MMBTU that Ofgem and the Climate Change Committee were proposing only last year,  kicks away the foundations of every part of UK energy policy. The gentleman from the European Climate Foundation, towards the end of the video to your right from the Atlantic Council’s Wroclaw Global Forum last week, seemed to either come in at the end or simply didn’t listen because he had already made his mind up. = Next week in Manchester, it would be refreshing if Doug Parr of Greenpeace or his siblings in arms, would actually stay for the entire conference.  But why risk doubt by listening to the other side?  They are like people in my grandfather's time in Ireland who wouldn’t even enter a Protestant church, for fear of infection.

Certainty, is a virtue, like religious faith, that I’ve never been quite able to grasp. On matters spiritual, political or environmental I’m an agnostic: I’d like to believe. I respect those who do. I’m even jealous sometimes: it must be great not to have doubts. To belong to a community of fellow believers. To have members of the tribe backing you up no matter what. 

The above musings come to mind on reading about Pandora’s Promise, a new movie opening in the US this week about environmentalists coming to terms with nuclear energy. One of the reviews, describes it as:

It takes Robert Stone's controversial new documentary Pandora's Promise 30 minutes and five apostate environmentalists, but it finally gets to the point: Nuclear power, the energy source many people fear most, is the best and currently only way to satisfy the world's voracious demand for electricity without producing carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to climate change.  

Surely a broadly similar case could be made for an environmentalist rethink on natural gas? I know Mike Shellenberger has no issues with gas but I'd love to hear Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas's take on substituting natural gas for coal now as we then move forward to a low foot print nuclear future.  Otherwise, the new open minded glowing greens continue to enable coal by promoting a technology that has not yet arrived, is prohibitively expensive and going to be far more problematic to embed in the generation structure than natural gas. That description sounds suspiciously like the supporters of 100% renewables. 

I propose that wind, small scale nuclear, next gen solar and natural gas will all have roles in the future. Where environmentalists (and perhaps nuclear fans, I still have to see the movie) have made mistakes is not understanding that electricity generation is only one third of the carbon equation. No amount of nuclear energy for example can substitute for the role of natural gas in the chemical and fertiliser industry or in readily replacing natural gas in heat applications. I don't see any electrification of  commercial bakeries, brick works, steel mills, cement plants, food processing and so on either.  I also see the possibility of significant displacement of oil in trucking and marine uses. The vast majority of cars can remain on oil, or be electrified urban vehicles.  Every other engine: locomotives, mining machinery, marine shipping, buses, fleets and trucking can be converted to gas using existing technology. Natural gas is not perfect, but in transport it cuts CO2 in oil by 30% and provides substantial air quality improvements besides.

What I do see is that the enemy is coal. Lets understand that Coal Carbon Capture and Storage has already been invented. It's called leaving it in the ground. Much lower carbon natural gas is so abundant that its promise is to replace coal:  leaving plenty of room for zero carbon nuclear, renewables and energy storage.

But the urgency of the C02 issue means that for today, we have to make a choice between the perfect and the good. I hope that greens can similarly abandon outdated concepts on natural gas as well as nuclear.

As such, I look forward to not so much understanding the green apostates fervor for the new religon, but understanding their journey.  Before they embraced nuclear, they must have held renewables very tightly. What made them let go? What caused the sudden burst of reason? 

Changing your mind about nuclear is all well and good.  But what do we do today? 

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