Nick Smith: another fossil fuel fail

By Bryan Walker 15/08/2012

MP Nick Smith in a NZ Herald opinion piece this week uses the fracking debate to advance the cause of fossil fuel mining. He claims that fracking is important in the development of geothermal energy and then moves seamlessly to the notion that we are desperately in need of unconventional natural gas in order to save us from falling back on coal, which we will otherwise “inevitably burn”. In defending fracking he manages to nicely couple the fossil fuel natural gas with a renewable energy source, geothermal.

It’s not my purpose to argue here about fracking as a technology. What is dismaying about Smith’s article is the complacency with which he advances the cause of natural gas. Writing enthusiastically of the huge unconventional shale gas resources in the US, he claims gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. I know its emissions are lower, but it was news to me that they were as low as that. I could find no source to substantiate that figure. A little over half is the best figure I have been able to locate, and there are big questions about methane leakage in the fracking process. However let that pass. The real issue is the unrestrained pursuit of unconventional fossil fuels, which as James Hansen has reminded us often enough will mean game over for the climate.

The argument that natural gas is better than coal from a climate change perspective is increasingly made. It is true enough. But it does not mean that natural gas is somehow benign in relation to global warming. I’ve written on this question before and I repeat here a quote I used then from Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA:

“While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

Nick Smith’s urgent advocacy of fracking for natural gas, albeit hedged by some precautions, completely ignores the challenge to replace the use of all fossil fuels with renewable or nuclear energy. It appears to be either natural gas or coal in his book, and he works up a lather of indignation about how opposition to fracking “halts the development of industries offering significant economic and environmental benefits” to the country.

There may or may not be immediate environmental concerns about the process of fracking. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is undertaking an enquiry and will report by the end of the year. But the overarching environmental concern is much greater than the fracking technology. That concern is the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a matter which Smith addresses only to the extent of hurriedly claiming the superiority of natural gas over coal. If that is as far as Government thinking goes, it is nowhere near far enough.

Smith in his final paragraph, in the context of an assertion that he is passionate about New Zealand’s natural environment, urges the need for “a rational and science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management”. Is there anything more rational and science-based than the warnings of climate scientists that we are putting humanity in grave danger by continuing to explore and exploit fossil fuels? Certainly we can’t make the transition to other fuels overnight. But it would be good to see a politician of Smith’s background saving his insistent advocacy for the necessary goal of developing energy sources that do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The Government’s preference for short term issues is a sad avoidance of responsibility.