There is nothing inherently superior about natural gas from hydraulic fracturing - fracking - it has the same emissions as regular natural gas. But it is a lot lower than coal and does not have the political baggage of nuclear energy and that is why environmentalists lobbied for it over the last 40 years.

And it has worked. America leads the world in fracking and energy emissions are back at early 1990s levels, just as climate scientists said we needed to be, while coal is back at early 1980s levels. But now environmentalists have tried to claim that natural gas from fracking will somehow be worse. Some of the claims are riddled with errors climate scientists would never make, but that led to publicity claims about methane, what about the rest?

The United Kingdom wants to know. Now that they are keeping Scotland, they can get back to business and they have enough natural gas to last them for the next 470 years. They won't need it, any more than the US will, if governments stop subsidizing current flawed technology, like solar panels and wind vanes, and use that money for basic research, and use that money for basic research, solar will be ready in a few decades. Even controlled fusion could be ready in 50 years.

Researchers have now conducted one of the most thorough examinations of the likely environmental impacts of shale gas exploitation in the UK in a bid to inform the debate. 

“While exploration is currently ongoing in the UK, commercial extraction of shale gas has not yet begun, yet its potential has stirred controversy over its environmental impacts, its safety and the difficulty of justifying its use to a nation conscious of climate change,” said lead author and University of Manchester Professor Adisa Azapagic. “There are many unknowns in the debate surrounding shale gas, so we have attempted to address some of these unknowns by estimating its life cycle environmental impacts from ‘cradle to grave’. We looked at 11 different impacts from the extraction of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing – known as ‘fracking’– as well as from its processing and use to generate electricity.”

The researchers compared shale gas to conventional natural gas and coal, as well as nuclear, offshore wind and solar power. They found that at 460 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated over its lifecycle, it is simply natural gas - so better than coal. But proponents of wind and solar and nuclear are putting on blinders and only using convenient snapshots in their advocacy. When depletion of natural resources, toxicity to humans, and impact on freshwater and marine organisms, natural gas from fracking comes out better than all off them. When it comes to ozone layer depletion and eutrophication - the effect of nutrients such as phosphates on natural ecosystems - only wind is better, but that will always be a gimmick.

The study found that coal still has benefits in some areas; ozone layer depletion, summer smog and terrestrial eco-toxicity.

"Some of the impacts of solar power are actually relatively high, so it is not a complete surprise that shale gas is better in a few cases. This is mainly because manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a country like the UK, as we don’t have as much sunshine. However, our research shows that the environmental impacts of shale gas can vary widely, depending on the assumptions for various parameters, including the composition and volume of the fracking fluid used, disposal routes for the drilling waste and the amount of shale gas that can be recovered from a well,"  Azapagic said. “Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas.”

The authors say their results highlight the need for tight regulation of shale gas exploration – weak regulation, they claim, may result in shale gas having higher impacts than coal power, resulting in a failure to meet climate change and sustainability imperatives and undermining the deployment of low-carbon technologies.

Azapagic added, “Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates. From the government policy perspective – focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security – it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.

“However, a wider view must also consider other aspects of widespread use of shale gas, including the impact on climate change, as well as many other environmental considerations addressed in our study. Ultimately, the environmental impacts from shale gas will depend on which options it is displacing and how tight the regulation is.”

Study co-author Dr Laurence Stamford, from Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, said. “Appropriate regulation should introduce stringent controls on the emissions from shale gas extraction and disposal of drilling waste. It should also discourage extraction from sites where there is little shale gas in order to avoid the high emissions associated with a low-output well.

“If shale gas is extracted under tight regulations and is reasonably cheap, there is no obvious reason, as yet, why it should not make some contribution to our energy mix. However, regulation should also ensure that investment in sustainable technologies is not reduced at the expense of shale gas.”

Citation: ‘Life cycle environmental impacts of UK shale gas’ by L. Stamford and A. Azapagic, published in Applied Energy (doi 10.1016/j.apenergy.2014.08.063), is available at: