Shale gas produced by fracking could help reduce carbon emissions, Energy Secretary Ed Davey said as he defended the controversial process.
Mr Davey said using shale gas from the UK’s reserves had a smaller carbon footprint than relying on gas shipped to Britain from the other side of the world.
The Energy Secretary told activists at the Liberal Democrat conference that the UK would have to rely on gas over the next 20 years until low-carbon renewable technologies were fully developed.
Mr Davey’s defence of fracking at the question and answer session angered one member of the audience, who marched out muttering “I’m not listening to this.”
The Energy Secretary said a study by the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s chief scientist Professor David MacKay and Tim Stone had shown the potential environmental benefits of shale gas compared to imported supplies.
He said: “What they show is that we are going to need, as we decarbonise as quick as we can, we are still going to need to burn a lot of gas over the next 15, 20-plus years – in our heating in our homes, in electricity generation, particularly as coal comes off and we need to burn much cleaner gas to keep the lights on as we develop and roll out the low-carbon technologies.”
But North Sea production was declining, he said, leading to a reliance on imports.
“We are importing a lot from Norway, from the continent and we have been increasingly importing liquefied natural gas (LNG), gas from ships from the other side of the world, gas from places like Qatar coming down the Strait of Hormuz.
“If you look at the carbon footprint of that gas, over its lifecycle, compared to the carbon footprint of shale gas from the UK, the carbon footprint of shale gas is less than the gas we are currently importing.
“So my argument to environmentalists … is that actually looking at this properly and strategically, shale gas could actually be an environmental gain compared to importing LNG from the other side of the world. Have they considered that?
“So I think there are arguments that we are trying to push from the environmentalist point of view and that’s even before you even get to the other issues of energy security itself.”
He added: “There is quite a lot of support for this, we need to make sure we understand that.”
Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton said: “Ed Davey’s support for shale gas will further fracture the Liberal Democrats’ green credentials.
“His argument that fracking could help tackle climate change is as naive as it is inaccurate – if we punch Britain full of holes to extract shale gas, it will keep us hooked on dirty and polluting fossil fuels for decades to come.
“The Government should be prioritising energy efficiency and renewable power – we will not tackle climate change if we continue to seek out new sources of fossil fuels.”