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Lord Lawson takes on climate scientist on fracking. And the winner was…



On the day that the British Geological Survey revealed that previous studies into UK shale gas reserves could have hugely underestimated the potential, the Economist magazine hosted its annual UK Energy Summit in London. A panel discussion on fracking was the highlight of the event.

Energy secretary Ed Davey had kicked off the day’s proceedings with a keynote speech on transforming the UK’s energy market. Just over an hour later, the government would outline a number of energy policy updates, including disappointing statistics on the green deal.

Davey wasn’t able to unveil the policies at the Economist event, but he did hint that that they would go some way to meeting the government’s three core energy aims of security, affordability and decarbonisation.

Mixed in with the government’s announcements was a study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) on the UK’s shale gas reserves. In a report, it estimated that there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of the stuff in the north of England alone – double what was previously thought.

It was apt, then, that the Economist event should include a panel discussion that explored whether a shale gas revolution – mirroring the one currently taking place in the US – could happen in the UK.

Chaired by Economist political editor James Astill, the three-member panel comprised of World Energy Council secretary-general Christoph Frei, climate scientist Kevin Anderson and former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Lawson.

As perhaps was the intention, Lord Lawson’s inclusion caused some controversy – particularly given his outspoken views on climate change. As founder and chairman of the thinktank-cum-charity the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), the former chancellor vehemently denies anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Blue & Green Tomorrow named him as one of the four horsemen of the climate apocalypse in the recent Guide to Climate Change 2013. He is also very much in favour of fracking.

The impact of shale gas on the UK’s efforts to combatting climate change is up for debate. For example, Lord Deben, the chair of the government’s climate advisers the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said in a Financial Times article in February that “people should invest in shale gas in Britain” as a means of keeping the lights on. Meanwhile, some green groups rule out the technology as directly contradictory to the UK’s carbon reduction efforts.

RTCC and Greenpeace have both pondered the relationship between fracking and climate change in recent months.

Gaynor Hartnell, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association (REA) recently said, If the environmental impacts of using shale gas prove to be acceptable, and if the public is happy to host the infrastructure, it is better than reliance on imports. Gas can certainly play an important transitional role, but shale gas should not be a distraction from renewables.

The UK needs eventually to produce electricity with virtually zero-carbon emissions. If shale gas can revolutionise our economy, we must invest the proceeds in building a resilient energy system for the future, dominated by renewables.

A widely-accepted view is that shale gas should act as a transition fuel as the UK moves towards a low-carbon energy mix, though even this opinion has been met with scepticism.

At the Economist event, it took Lord Lawson, a philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) graduate, less than a minute to describe wind farms as “nonsensical” – despite it being a discussion on fracking. He described the CCC and the Environment Agency as the “two ugly sisters” that were stopping shale gas from “getting to ball”.

Anderson, who is professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, offered a more considered perspective. He said that if the UK goes ahead with fracking, other countries – particularly in the developing world – will look to do the same. Put bluntly, he said, our climate may not be able to cope with this sudden boom in gas burning. Adding another fossil fuel to the energy mix would be dangerous and “the maths are absolutely clear” about that.

Anderson also commented on the risks of groundwater pollution caused by fracking. Many studies have found a connection between the two – most recently by researchers at Duke University in the US. Lord Lawson, however, rejected his fellow panellist’s claims but failed to refer to any evidence to support his assertions.

Another incident that had attendees amazed at the former chancellor’s chutzpah was his response to a question from the floor. Will Straw, associate director of left-leaning thinktank the IPPR and son of former foreign secretary Jack, pointed Lord Lawson in the direction of a comment made by a spokesperson from shale gas extraction firm Cuadrilla. The Independent reported earlier this month that the company’s PR man had admitted that fracking may not reduce energy bills.

Straw asked Lord Lawson what he made of that, to which he replied, “He didn’t say that.” We would refer readers to the original Independent article for confirmation of the spokesperson’s statement, but here’s an extract from the article:

At a meeting for concerned residents at a potential fracking site in West Sussex, a Cuadrilla representative was asked to comment on whether shale gas could drive down customers’ energy bills.

“We’ve done an analysis and it’s a very small […] at the most it’s a very small percentage […] basically insignificant”, said Mark Linder, a public relations executive at Bell Pottinger who is also responsible for Cuadrilla’s corporate development.

In the article a company spokesperson is reported to say, “Cuadrilla’s never said it [shale] will bring down prices…We don’t think it will bring down prices, although it does have the potential to.” The spokesperson went on to stress that shale gas exploitation was about security of supply than price.

An eventful panel discussion concluded with the former chancellor saying, “A government that purely pursues the policies of Kevin Anderson will be rejected by the British electorate, and quite right, too.”

But rather than giving the Lord Lawson the last word in this article, we refer to something Anderson himself said in a 2011 report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research into the environmental impacts of fracking: “if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.”

This is a warning from an experienced climate scientist. We would suggest perhaps listening to his advice, rather than giving a PPE graduate a platform to spread anti-science disinformation that distorts and damages the debate.

Further reading:

UK shale gas reserves could exceed expectations

Energy minister Michael Fallon: legislation will help ‘responsible’ fracking’

Too early to say’ whether fracking will reduce bills, say MPs

The four horsemen of the climate apocalypse

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013