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Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a means of extracting natural gas from shale rock by pumping water in at high pressure. It has been responsible for serious local pollution, including poisoning drinking water supplies, in the US.
It has been argued that as a lower-carbon fuel than coal, shale gas can act as a 'bridge' to low-carbon power. This is a misleading claim, since:
The UK’s commitment to make our fair contribution to reduce emissions in line with keeping global warming below a 2°C rise gives a very clear global carbon budget – and hence a UK budget – i.e., how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere over this century. Here the maths is unambiguous – we have insufficient budget for the carbon we are already emitting. By the time shale gas is produced in any quantity (five to ten years) there will be no emissions space left for it.
In the absence of a stringent limit on total carbon emissions shale gas will not substitute for coal - certainly not on a global level.
Shale gas directly competes with investment in renewable technologies vital for combating climate change.
How much methane leaks during the entire lifecycle of unconventional gas is a key question in how damaging it will be to the climate. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4). And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than (CO2), which is released when any hydrocarbon, like natural gas, is burned. Substituting coal for natural gas only benefits the climate if leakage can be kept below 2%.
The government's localism rhetoric seems to be wearing thin when councils fail to endorse fracking in their area. David Cameron gave reassurances last summer that "decisions must be made by local authorities in the proper way, under the planning regime we have," but a few months later the Secretary of State announced that he was prepared to overrule Lancashire council on fracking. And a recently leaked letter revealed plans to remove decision-making powers from local councils, putting them in the hands of planning inspectors instead.
This follows previous measures to fast-track fracking planning applications. These are in stark contrast to restrictions placed on local authorities to make it much more difficult for them to approve onshore wind. It seems that only one of these industries is deemed 'in the national interest' - unfortunately it is the one which is a threat to our climate.
Activists in Lancashire are currently awaiting the result of Cuadrilla's appeal against the council's decision to reject their application to frack.