What has natural gas ever done for us?


In the week that Third Energy won planning approval to frack its existing KM8 well in North Yorkshire, we thought we’d take a look at the role of natural gas in the UK, starting with emissions reductions.


Opponents of shale gas in the UK regularly claim that exploiting it will be at odds with our climate change goals. In doing so, they refer to a paper published in the journal Nature (£) that said much of the world’s existing proven fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground and unburnt if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

Whilst there’s no getting away from the fact that natural gas from shale is a fossil fuel, the argument isn’t quite as clear cut as some would have us believe.

That’s because natural gas is the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels, and that means that it can actually make a positive difference to the UK’s climate change inventory.

In this shareable infographic, we chart the history of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2014.

You can see that they have been falling steadily, and continue to do so – you can even see a steep drop that’s been associated with the financial crash of 2008. These cuts in emissions are clearly the result of multiple factors, but there can be no doubt that the increased use of natural gas in electricity generation – at the expense of coal – has played a part.

When burned in electricity generation coal emits 903 tonnes of carbon dioxide per GWh (see Table 5D here). Natural gas, on the other hand, just 365 tonnes.

It’s obvious that coal-to-gas switching has already helped to lower emissions, and that it can continue to do so – a fact recognised by the Government which, in September 2015, announced plans to phase-out coal-fired power generation by 2025, to be replaced, in part, by natural gas. The paper in Nature even acknowledges that ‘gas plays an important role in replacing coal in the electrical and industrial sectors, in a two-degree scenario’ (keeping global temperature rises to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) and goes further by saying that about 94% of Europe’s gas reserves are still burnable in a two-degree world.

By way of illustration, let’s look at what it would do for emissions if natural gas substituted 100% for coal in UK electricity generation. In 2014, the UK generated 101,000 GWh of electricity from coal. At 903 tonnes of carbon dioxide per GWh, that adds up to an enormous 91 million tonnes of climate changing carbon dioxide emissions. At just 365 tonnes of carbon dioxide per GWh, natural gas, on the other hand, would give rise to a considerably lower 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – a saving of more than 54 million tonnes of CO2.

In reality, natural gas won’t be the only fuel used to edge coal off the grid – it will continue to work alongside nuclear and increasing amounts of wind and solar power – but it shows that it has climate benefits that are often overlooked in attempts to portray shale gas as bad for the environment.

“gas plays an important role in replacing coal in the electrical and industrial sectors, in a two-degree scenario”

The next question, then, concerns where we obtain our natural gas. Right now, around two-thirds of the gas we use is imported, most notably by pipeline from Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, but a significant quantity is also imported from Qatar in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and it is this that shale gas advocates hope to see replaced by a domestic source of onshore natural gas.

LNG imports are responsible for very few UK jobs and raise no taxes. But added to that, they are also worse for the environment than natural gas produced here because of the energy required to chill the gas to a liquid state, ship it around the world, and then re-gassify it on arrival.

Using this paper on the life cycle environmental impacts of UK shale gas, we were able to calculate that replacing 100% of Qatar LNG imports with UK shale gas would result in carbon dioxide emissions savings equivalent to taking over 400,000 cars a year off our roads.

Whichever way you look at it, all the evidence points to the fact that natural gas has already helped to shape the UK’s response to climate change, and that it can continue doing so. Far from being at odds with that response, it looks as though UK shale gas could have a part to play.

At the Onshore Energy Services Group, we’re eager to ensure that if shale gas extraction does grow at scale in the UK, that the supply chain is dominated by British SMEs.