Analysis
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Boris on shale: 10 statements - the true, the false and the unknowable.

Damian Kahya
Damian Kahya is the Energydesk editor and former foreign, business and energy reporter for the BBC. You can following him on Twitter @damiankahya
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Shutterstock

The London Mayor is the first person we know to use fracking instead of cracking. (image: www.shutterstock.com)

Britain should get fracking, says the Mayor of London in a surprisingly detailed intervention into the UK's energy policy. We give 10 of his claims the once over in the same good humour as he makes them - albeit with far, far too many numbers.

1) The cost of disposing of their [nuclear] spent fuel rods is put at about £100 billion – more than the value of all the electricity they have produced since the Fifties.

True - probably

This refers to an article in the Sunday Times which adds up the cost of decommissioning with the cost of nuclear power stations and compares it to the cost of power generated from Nuclear power calculated in today's prices. Mr Johnson appears to have ignored the construction cost, discussed in the article.

2) A new building like the Shard needs four times as much juice as the entire town of Colchester

False - external source.

The zelo-street blog points to an Independent article in which The Shard's architect argues the building uses less energy than a town of 8,000. Colchester, it points out, has a population of 104,000. 

3) The total contribution of wind power is still only about 0.4 per cent of Britain’s needs.

Unclear.

It's unclear what units Mr Johnson means here. Does he mean our electricity or energy - which includes, for example, the gas we burn for heating or oil we burn for transport. 

In terms of our electricity needs, wind generated 16Twh of power in 2011 compared to total generation of 364.9Twh. That works out at 4.4%. Relatively modest by European standards. The government wants total renewable generation to triple from 9.4% in 2011 to 30% by 2030.

Perhaps the Mayor meant energy. In that case you want to divide wind generation in 2011 by primary demand in that year. By our calculations you get 0.6%, which is closer - but still not 0.4. It's likely there is a calculation which yields that number for energy - we just don't have it to hand. 

4) We are prevented from putting in a new system of coal-fired power stations, since that would breach our commitments under Kyoto.

False - but we're being pedantic.

Our commitments under Kyoto don't specify what we can and can't build, they relate to emissions. The government has decided to rule out coal new build as one of the 'least cost' ways of reducing emissions.

5) We are therefore increasingly and humiliatingly dependent on Vladimir Putin’s gas 

False

Figures from UK Trade Info suggest we don't import any gas at all from Russia.

We do import lots of gas from Qatar which - coincidentally - helped to build the energy guzzling (apparently) Shard.

6) ..Or on the atomic power of the French state.

True

We imported 4.7Twh of (almost certainly) atomic power from the French state. That's 1.3% of our electricity needs. Some may find even this modest level of imports from France utterly humiliating. 

7) There is loads of the stuff [shale gas], apparently – about 1.3 trillion barrels - we could power our toasters and dishwashers for the foreseeable future.

Unproven

Again with the units. Gas, being a gas, doesn't really come in barrels. Oil comes in barrels. We presume Mr Johnson meant barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). 

By our (rough and ready) calculations 1.3 trn BOE of gas works out at 7,293 trn cubic feet of gas, which is, as Boris might put it, oodles more than anyone, anywhere, has estimated for the UK.

Oddly, it's also more than the main estimate for global recoverable shale reserves from the US Energy Information Agency - which is 6,622 trn cubic feet. Still this is almost certainly a legit global reserve number, he wouldn't have made it up (would he?).

Based on 2009 global consumption (EIA) that would work out at about 69 years worth of new gas bringing total supplies, on 2009 consumption, to 130 odd years or thereabouts (pass me another envelope).

The largest current resource estimate for the UK comes from Cuadrilla at 200trn cubic feet and would equate to around 69 years of UK gas consumption.

But there's a snag.

As Cuadrilla confirmed to us (and anyone else who asks) that number isn't a 'recoverable' or reserve estimate of what we can actually get out of the ground. It's also not really a total resource estimate - as it only covers the Cuadrilla area, the Bowland Shale.

Numbers on recoverable shale are discussed in the evidence to Parliament's energy and climate change committee by the British Geological Survey and analysed by the relatively independent Energy Contract Company

Estimates for recoverable shale in Cuadrilla's patch vary from 2tcf to 10-20 tcf. Estimates for total recoverable UK shale from 20-40tcf but really as Professor Bradshaw from the BGS put it; "we simply do not know".

Based on what little we do know the recoverable reserves are equal to between six and thirteen years of current UK consumption.

Again though, there is another factor to take into account - how fast you can get it out of the ground.

A report by the Energy Contract Company, covered in the FT suggests yearly production of 2.1m cubic feet a day by 2030.

That's about half current North Sea production, which is expected to decline sharply.

This report suggests, therefore, that whilst shale may compensate for the fall in production from the North Sea, it will not increase UK gas production or make the UK self-sufficient in gas.

Cuadrilla has recently supplied figures to Poyry suggesting they could extract almost exactly the same amount each year from the Bowland shale alone by 2035.

That's about 21% of total UK demand. This scenario leaves the UK 58% dependent on imports - compared to 78% without shale. 

The whole thing is based on estimates of estimates. Fresh estimates are expected from the British Geological Survey (BGS) in the New Year.

Until that happens, and until the test drilling is carried out to work out recoverable volumes, Mr Johnson's claims appear unproven. 

8) By offering the hope of cheap electricity

Unproven - it's supply and demand.

It's hard to prove or disprove a 'hope' specially for such a rare and treasured beast as 'cheap electricity'. But there is evidence to suggest caution.

1) Comparisons with the US, where shale gas pushed down power prices, are potentially misleading.

Gas - being again, a gas - is relatively hard to export (the thing about the lack of barrels) and the US did not have any infrustructure to do so.

Therefore when lots of new gas wells came on-stream the country experienced a 'gas glut' pushing down the price below the IEA's estimates of the cost of production.

Thanks to its North Sea infrastructure the UK is already a 'gas hub' with two European interconnector pipelines and large LNG ports. Indeed despite falling North Sea production and rising imports UK exports actually reached record levels last year. 

It's hard to have a gas glut in a gas hub. Instead, just like North Sea oil, UK shale gas will be sold to highest bidder from around the world and so do little to reduce UK prices.

An estimate by Poyry based on Cuadrilla data found that UK prices would be 2% lower in 2030 than they otherwise would have been without shale, 4% lower in the mid 2020's.

That forecast was based on Poyry's previous analysis for Ofgem and used a model of global gas demand and production. The price change, in short, doesn't come from shale in the UK alone.

2) Lower prices could come from global shale gas production, not UK production alone (though it obviously plays its part).

Against this, however, gas demand from Asia is expected to keep rising sharply - specially if the gas price falls - and conventional production such as that from the North Sea is likely to keep falling. 

All in all the IEA forecast that even in a best case, in which all reasonably recoverable reserves are extracted, European gas prices remain 40% above their 2010 levels and slightly higher than they are today. 

Should technical, economic or political limitations emerge then prices are likely to be over 63% above 2010 levels.

3) Global prices will only fall if shale is extracted at scale outside of the US.

There are some signs the 'Golden age' may falter - partially for political reasons.

France has banned drilling entirely and Exxon withdrew from Europe's most developed market, Poland citing problems extracting the gas there. 

Compared to Europe - and to an extent China - the US has very different geology with higher levels of public acceptance of drilling, a developed onshore oil and gas industry and lower population density.

In the US you own the land you stand on - driving incentives for drilling and reducing the nimbyism which limits road building, renewable energy and shale gas fracking in Europe. 

That said, large-scale state led extraction in China could again change the game on gas. 

4) Most shale is expected to come on stream after the UK decarbonises it's power sector so will have a limited impact on bills.

Poyry's report into Cuadrilla's shale expects production starting in earnest in the early 2020's, peaking through to 2035.

By that point carbon prices will have risen substantially and UK generation from gas is expected to be falling as the government targets partial or full decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030.

A report by the Committee on Climate change found that thanks to rising carbon prices the cost of electricity from gas will remain higher than power from clean energy - even if the price falls thanks to shale.

That is to say shale can only substantially reduce electricity prices if the UK abandons carbon pricing and continues to generate a significant amount of its power from gas through the 2030's. 

The only way to square the circle might be be for the government to invest substantially more than currently envisaged on carbon capture and storage tied to gas power stations.

Despite those points it's a fool who predicts the gas price.

Falling oil prices thanks to shale oil, or a drop in global demand thanks to a second world-wide recession could easily crash the price of gas. Ultimately, it's the market - stupid.  

6) The extraction process alone would generate tens of thousands of jobs in parts of the country that desperately needs them.

Unproven

Cuadrilla has forecast that it's operations in the UK could generate 5,600 jobs with around 1,700 of them being in Lancashire over nine years - presumably a 'part of the country that desperately needs them'. 

Shale drilling is also expected to take place in the Mendips and East Sussex where Cuadrilla are prospecting. Boris may, or may not, regard these areas as places where jobs are desperately needed.

In the US shale is credited with creating 500,000 jobs but large amounts of those are not in drilling but rather result from the lower energy prices which may, or may not, be replicated here (see above).

Shale in the UK however would generate revenues for the Exchequer and could - if reserves are sufficient - help the UK's balance of payments as Poyry point out irrespective of what impact it has on jobs or bills.

7) And above all, the burning of gas to generate electricity is much, much cleaner – and produces less CO2 – than burning coal

True - probably

Generating power from gas is about half as polluting as using coal.

However, fracking is slightly more complicated. The process involves repeatedly using high pressure water to break up rocks so the gas is released up the well.

However the water used itself returns to the surface still containing large amounts of methane. If this is not captured, but released into the air, it is 21 times more polluting that Co2.

As a consequence of these so-called 'fugitive emissions' some studies - including this study of atmospheric data around fracking wells by the US National Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - has found shale to be almost as bad for the climate as coal. 

This problem is exacerbated if we choose to import gas from shale as the process of freezing and shipping gas can add 15-20% to it's lifecycle emissions depending on which energy source is used.

The industry has responded by suggesting that where the fugitive methane is trapped and vented or used (so-called green completions) the lifetime emissions are far lower.

A recent study by MIT argued that fugitive emissions from shale had been significantly over-stated because researchers had assumed these methods were not used. 

There does not yet appear to be any atmospheric data linked to extraction with green completions. Until then it remains likely shale is less polluting than coal but it is unknown by exactly how much. 

8) In 2008 the cost of natural gas in the US was $8 a unit. It is now $3 a unit.

True.

Again with the units (he means mmBtu this time) but never mind. Actually the price fell as low as $1.73 but has now risen to $3.30 and is expected to average $3.49 in 2013, compared to $2.77 in 2012. 

Some expertsExxon and the IEA have suggested that it is not actually economic to drill for shale at below $3, with some wells needing over double that. 

As a consequence the number of drilling rigs in the US has almost halved since the start of the year with the EIA forecasting a drop in shale gas production in 2013. 

9) As a result of the use of gas, the Americans have cut their CO2 emissions to levels not seen since the Nineties, in spite of a growing population.

True - ish.

Lower gas prices encourage power companies to switch from using coal (cheap) to gas (even cheaper). 

This led the IEA to claim that shale gas was the main cause of a fall in US emissions in 2011. It wasn't - renewables were more significant - but it was certainly a contributing factor.

As gas prices crashed at the start of 2012 they were the primary cause of a further fall in emissions, but the US Energy Information Agency is now forecasting that the re-bound in US gas prices - to levels at which they are economic - will push emissions up in 2013.

All of that is assuming - as MIT do - that fugitive emissions from shale are broadly controlled, as these are not in the official data. 

In short, low gas prices have helped the US cut its emissions, specially this year, but it is an unreliable option in the face of cheap coal.

Carbon pricing, which makes gas permenantly more competative than coal, may be seen as a more reliable method. 

10) As for the anxieties about water poisoning or a murrain on the cattle, there have been 125,000 fracks in the US, and not a single complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency.

False

The US EPA has recieved complaints about shale, like this one. UK regulations would be likely to be tougher than those in the US however, potentially reducing worries about localised environmental impact - according to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. Tougher regulation, however, may also drive up some costs. 

Bonus round: Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia! Don’t probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger — or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge. 

Um, we'll let you decide on this one. True or false? Comments below. 

Fact-checks can, themsevles, be false. The nature of Mr Johnson's claims meant this article had to go through more than the average number of unit coversions etc. If you've spotted an error get in touch and we'll send you a chocolate.

 

 


Comments Add new comment

Just as fracked methane is released into water supplies, new evidence suggests it may also be leaking through soils into the atmosphere. This would be near impossible to capture. A study by researchers at Southern Cross University on coal seam gas (coal bed methane in the UK) shows elevated of methane and CO2 over a fracked gas field. Definitely more reaserch needed, but this would be a massive blow to any low carbon claims.

http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-australia-fracking-l...

Here's a link to the pdf from Southern Cros University: http://bit.ly/VALCbP

 

Have you seen the disclaimer for this Poyry report?
"This publication
contains projections which are based on assumptions subjected to
uncertainties and contingencies. Because of the subjective judgements
and inherent uncertainties of projections, and because events frequently
do not occur as expected, there can be no assurance that the
projections contained herein will be realised and actual results may be
different from projected results. Hence the projections supplied are not
to be regarded as firm predictions of the future, but rather as
illustrations of what might happen."
source: http://www.poyry.com/sites/default/files/imce/files/shale_gas_point_of_v...

As Boris has gone gaga about Gaia, I would strongly recommend that you do not probe his foamy undergarments with so much as a finger or you might trigger off an intestinal explosion that leads to a blow-out of hot air about fracking from one of his orifices. Would that have to be included in the estimate of fugitive methane emissions?

You've got 13 points here, not 10 - even better, but we don't want Johnson thinking you can't count!

Boris Johnson's lie claiming the US Environmental Protection Agency has received zero complaints about fracking is so disgusting it deserves more exposure, especially since it was published as fake fact by the Daily Telegraph.

Toxic gases such as Hydrogen Sulphide and benzene and other cancer causing hydrocarbons are released by the fracking process.

Residents who live near oil and gas operations in Colorado and New Mexico gathered air samples and submited them for lab analysis. A report ublished in 2011 tested nine of the samples and found 22 toxic chemicals, including four carcinogens at levels ranging from 3 to 3,000 times higher than established safety limits.

http://gcmonitor.org/downloads/gassedreport.pdf

A sample by the Bucket Brigade contained hydrogen sulfide gas at levels 185 times higher than a threshold set by the EPA as posing long-term health risks to humans.

Clearly there are more dangers to people and the envirnoment than the industry wants us to know about.

 

 

 

 

 

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