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Fracking won't endanger UK's climate targets, says Ed Davey

Minister talks of shale gas ushering a 'green future', but report warns global emissions will rise without international climate deal

Fracking for shale gas is not a "great evil" and can act as a bridge to a "green future" in the UK as long as it is properly regulated, according to the energy and climate secretary Ed Davey.

In a major speech in defence of exploiting domestic shale gas he said that Britain can extract the gas without endangering the country's climate targets.

But the energy and climate secretary's comments were accompanied by a warning in a report from his department's chief scientist that exploiting shale gas in the UK will cause global greenhouse gas emissions to rise without an international deal on climate change.

Davey said the debate over shale gas has been marred by exaggeration and misunderstanding. "You would be forgiven for thinking that it represents a great evil; one of the gravest threats that has ever existed to the environment, to the health of our children and to the future of the planet.

"On the other side of the coin, you could have been led to believe that shale gas is the sole answer to all our energy problems ... Both of these position are just plain wrong.

"Gas, as the cleanest fossil fuel, is part of the answer to climate change, as a bridge in our transition to a green future, especially in our move away from coal," said Davey, at a speech at the Royal Society in London. He added the report showed that "with the right safeguards in place the net effect on national emission from UK shale gas production will be relatively small when compared to the use of other sources of gas."

He added: "UK shale gas can be developed sensibly and safely, protecting the local environment, with the right regulation."

But in the government report, which analyses for the first time the impact of shale gas on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, David Mackay, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said that fracking in Britain would lead to emissions going up in the absence of an international agreement on a UN climate deal in Paris in two years' time. The UN talks have been stalled for several years, after failing to agree a strong deal at Copenhagen in 2009.

The report compared the emissions of shale gas with those from the liquefied natural gas that the UK currently imports, largely from Qatar, and concluded the two were very similar and would have little effect on the UK's legally-binding climate targets. Both were higher, however, than conventional gas extracted from the North Sea. "It will have a very small effect on the UK's [climate] targets," said Mackay. "We think it's credible were shale gas produced in the UK it would displace LNG imports."

Davey said that this conclusion should "reassure" environmentalists concerned at shale gas exacerbating global warming.

"This report shows that the continued use of gas is perfectly consistent with our carbon budgets over the next couple of decades. If shale gas production does reach significant levels we will need to make extra efforts in other areas. Because by on-shoring production we will be on-shoring the emissions as well. And, as this report recommends, we will still need to put in place a range of techniques to reduce emissions.

"It should help reassure environmentalists like myself, that we can safely pursue UK shale gas production and meet our national emissions reductions targets designed to help tackle climate change," he said.

Davey also dismissed concerns over water pollution from fracking in the UK, and the very small earthquakes caused by energy company Cuadrilla in 2009. "It will not contaminate water supplies. It will not cause dangerous earthquakes," he said.

Green groups said that the government's backing of shale gas was not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change.

Nick Molho, head of climate and energy policy at WWF-UK, said: "An overreliance on gas will lock us into a high-carbon future. Simply put, at the moment, the maths don't stack up – and it's difficult to see how exploiting ever more fossil fuels is compatible with tackling climate change or boosting the UK's promising low-carbon economy."

Leila Deen, of Greenpeace, said it was "extraordinary to see a Liberal Democrat enthusiastically embracing new fossil fuels." She added: "Today Davey is endorsing the use of a fuel that remains highly polluting, damages our countryside and scientists say must be largely left underground. The solution to our energy problems is still a roll-out of high-tech low carbon renewables which would be incentivised by supporting the clean energy target in the energy bill, but Davey is currently blocking it."

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling underground and pumping a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to crack shale rock and release the gas inside.

Critics are concerned at the high amounts of water the process uses in areas of England that are already increasingly being affected by drought, contamination of water supplies, and investment being diverted from renewable energy, such as windfarms and solar power.

However, experts on Monday said that the volume of water used by fracking would not be a problem in the UK nationally, though some local water-stressed areas could be an issue. The British Geological Survey also said that it had begun a survey of methane levels in UK groundwater so that it could establish a baseline of how much of the gas occured naturally, in order to detect whether contamination by fracking for shale gas occurs in the future.

Liberal Democrat Davey, like the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, has repeatedly made the case that the UK needs to explore the potential of shale gas, because of the potential for economic growth and greater energy security.

Last month, prime minister David Cameron said that the UK needed to pursue fracking because it would bring down energy prices. Cameron said: "Even if we only see a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America, we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country."

But the world's leading climate change economist, Lord Stern, later said such a claim was "baseless." "It's a bit odd to say you know that it will bring the price of gas down. That doesn't look like sound economics to me. It's baseless economics," he said. On Monday, Davey said: "It's far from clear that UK shale gas production could ever replicate the price effects seen in the US." Yet he also said he was of the same mind as Cameron on fracking.

Cuadrilla, the only energy company to have so far undertaken fracking for shale gas in the UK, has temporarily halted its operations in the West Sussex village of Balcombe due to protests and a foul-up with its licensing application that left a "legal ambiguity." It has also told the Guardian that in the next two months it will be announcing plans to resume operations in Lancashire. It had to stop fracking near Blackpool after two small earthquakes in 2011.

Under government plans, communities living near shale gas wells are to be paid a one-off payment of £100,000, and will share 1% of the revenues if the well is successfully exploited.

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