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  1. Spotlight on Policy
27 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 12:50pm

Natural gas and net-zero CO2

Delivering a credible pathway to net zero C02 by 2050 will require the ongoing use of natural gas as a feedstock for hydrogen and a back-up fuel for generating electricity, explains the CEO of leading onshore shale exploration operator Cuadrilla

By Francis Egan

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the last few months I have been frequently reminded of this quote, attributed to the great humourist Mark Twain, as I have watched, listened to and read many reports and commentary pieces on the UK’s decision to become net-zero CO2 by 2050.

It is well documented that this world-leading legislation and commitment follows recommendations from the UK Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC’s) net-zero report, published in May of this year.

It was a defining moment of leadership and ambition and one that naturally signals the end of all UK fossil fuel use by 2050, if not well beforehand. Indeed, by 2050 all of our energy will, by law, be supplied by renewable sources. Of course there will be costs and a certain amount of inconvenience incurred in the switch, but this is not only affordable but, more importantly, absolutely essential if we are to address the climate emergency.

Sound familiar? That’s because this narrative is, by and large, how media reports and commentators have interpreted events. The only problem, as Mark Twain so succinctly put it, is that “it just ain’t so”.

Like much compelling fiction the narrative is largely grounded in fact. We are indeed committing, in law, to net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. We will undoubtedly as a consequence substantially, and hopefully swiftly, expand the amount of energy supplied from renewable sources. We can, we are confident, manage both the cost and the complexity associated with this major change. So far so good.

However, what the CCC’s report does not say, nor the legislation require, is that the UK will end fossil fuel usage in the UK before, at, or indeed after 2050. In fact the detailed analysis set out in the report makes clear that if we are to maximise our chances of meeting the net-zero target, we will, in 2050, still be using approximately 70 per cent of the natural gas that we are using in the UK today.

How can that be so? Everyone knows that natural gas, whilst significantly less polluting than coal or oil, is still a fossil fuel. Surely that means that we can’t and won’t go on using it? The CCC in fact recommends that we can and we will continue using gas, but only if, by 2050, we use it exclusively (i) in conjunction with carbon capture and storage for electricity and (ii) as a feedstock for the manufacture of hydrogen, which will replace the gas almost all of us use in heating our homes and offices.

Natural gas is recognised by the experts to be an important part of the solution without which there is no credible pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050.

This is not, however, a get out of jail free card for UK gas explorers or producers. Cuadrilla for one recognises that we need to be a part of the solution and not, as some may perceive us, part of the problem. We recognise that carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production are critical if the UK is to meet its net-zero emissions target. To that end we are engaging with a number of existing initiatives so that UK shale gas rather than imported gas can and will be a vital source of emission-free UK energy by 2050.

We don’t pretend that we have all of the answers but we are becoming fully engaged in conversations around the hydrogen economy and the new technology that will get us there.

The opportunity

As the hydrogen economy develops in the North West we will be seeking to engage with work taking place around the region. In particular we will be looking at how methane-rich shale gas might feed into the production of hydrogen at scale by steam methane reformation.

Currently the UK produces around 0.7 Mt of hydrogen annually (27TWh), the majority of which is produced via either steam methane reforming or partial oil oxidation, and from now on we will need a lot more methane as a feedstock.

The potential for Cuadrilla’s product – rich, natural gas from UK shale rock – to be at the heart of these developments is hugely exciting for the company.

In order to make this potential a reality, we recently mobilised key pumping equipment back to our shale gas site at Preston New Road to carry on our exploration work to see how much of the estimated 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas resource may be recoverable from the Bowland Shale. To put that in context, the UK uses approximately three trillion cubic feet of gas a year – so there is potentially a very large untapped energy source to help power local homes and local businesses for decades to come as we transition towards a low-carbon economy in the near future.

Earlier this year, we announced results from flow testing of the UK’s first ever horizontal shale gas exploration well, confirming a reservoir of high-quality natural gas. The initial exploration also confirmed that the Bowland Shale formation fractures in a way that is typical of an excellent shale gas reservoir. A fracture network was generated in the shale and injected sand stayed in place during flow back of gas.

The current work programme at our flagship Preston New Road site is the latest step in demonstrating the huge commercial opportunity of natural gas from UK shale – in terms of home-grown energy, job creation and revenue for the country.

Work to date at the Preston New Road site on what is probably the most highly monitored onshore oil and gas site in the world has proven that this is an entirely safe, well-run and well-regulated operation. There is no doubt that the opportunity for the UK to develop an indigenous energy source that supports the country to reach net-zero ambitions by 2050 is huge.

We are very hopeful that the Labour Party will not continue to seemingly favour increasing imports of natural gas by ship or by long-distance pipeline from far-away countries and regions over domestically produced, well-regulated UK gas production to meet our undoubted continued demand for the foreseeable future. Exporting UK emissions and UK jobs should after all surely never be a Labour Party policy.

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