A moratorium on fracking for shale gas should not be lifted without an in-depth review of its climate impacts, Government advisers have warned.
The Committee on Climate Change also warned a new target to cut emissions from UK offshore oil and gas production by 50% by 2030 was much less than their recommendations and stronger policies should be introduced.
Weak policies on tackling domestic oil and gas emissions would hinder efforts to cut the UK’s greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050, and risk damaging Britain’s authority as president of the Cop26 international climate summit, a letter from the committee said.
Planned reviews ahead of new licensing rounds for offshore oil and gas to see if they were climate compatible would have to “present a transparent and coherent case to justify proceeding” with new rounds, it added.
Chairman Lord Deben has written to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on the compatibility of UK onshore oil and gas with climate efforts, as part of the committee’s advisory role to Government, and also looked at offshore production.
There is a moratorium on onshore exploitation of oil and gas through fracking, a controversial process that prompted public opposition over minor earthquakes and fears about traffic and pollution from operations.
And the Government has a legal target to cut greenhouse gases to net zero in the UK by 2050, which requires cutting emissions as much as possible and taking steps such as planting trees to counter remaining pollution.
Three tests previously set out by the Climate Change Committee: to limit emissions from fracking wells; keep gas consumption in line with targets for carbon cuts; and offset production emissions with reductions elsewhere in the economy, are now more difficult to achieve with the net-zero goal, it said.
Oil consumption must fall by nearly half (47%) by 2035 and gas needs to be reduced by nearly two thirds (65%) by then, to meet net zero, the letter warned.
But the UK will still need supplies beyond declining sources from the North Sea and Norway for decades, and shale gas could be a cleaner option than imported liquified natural gas (LNG), the letter said.
In the face of climate action, gas could be used with “CCS” technology to capture carbon emissions and store them permanently underground, but the tech would still not be zero-emissions, and it has made little progress so far.
Fracking is unpopular – and if the public link it to the development of hydrogen, a potentially important, clean fuel but one which could be made from natural gas extracted by the process, it could risk acceptance of hydrogen.
The letter urges the Government that if concerns over seismic activity caused by fracking are overcome, “the moratorium on UK shale production should not be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact”.
The review should take the UK’s net-zero and international plans into account, assess the emissions from domestic shale versus other alternatives such as LNG, and look at progress in deploying hydrogen made from renewables instead of gas.
Progress on CCS technology and how much it cuts emissions should also be examined, and the impact of fracking on public acceptance of shifting to net zero, as well as the risk of locking in fossil fuel infrastructure should be assessed, the letter urged.
OGUK Sustainability Director Mike Tholen, said: “The UK offshore oil and gas sector is changing and is on track to reduce our emissions by 50% in 2030 and 90% by 2040, compared to where we are now.
“We are committed to helping the UK government meet its climate ambitions of net zero by 2050 on time.
“The North Sea Transition Deal will help us get there faster by developing homegrown greener energy solutions and reducing reliance on imported oil and gas.
“These comments don’t recognise that commitments agreed in the Deal address a broader range of emissions, including logistics, as well as those from the production of oil and gas.
“Electrification of offshore installations through the provision of cost-effective offshore electricity will be a game-changer, facilitated by the right policy framework.”