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Monday, February 11, 2013

Shale gas distracts EU "action heroes" from saving the climate

Has environmentalism replaced patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel?

I'm not referring here to those bona fide greens whose commitment to saving the earth is demonstrated both by their personal lifestyles and their activism. Rather, I'm calling out politicians and institutions that claim to be defending the earth, when they are really conniving in its destruction, as abject hypocrites.

Last month, two Canadian ministers - Cal Dallas and Diana McQueen - undertook a tour of Europe, where they distributed fliers bragging of how the Ottawa government is "showing global leadership in the fight against climate change". As a new study by Friends of the Earth suggests, the evidence to support this boast is a little threadbare, considering that Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol -the main international agreement on climate change - in 2011 and appears determined to extract and export highly polluting tar sands oil.

Star struck by being in the same room as Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of January, José Manuel Barroso gushed that "we all need to be a little more like climate action heroes". The European Commission chief tried to cast himself as such a hero by indicating that he favoured setting a new target for reducing EU greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Unconvincing

Barroso is the least convincing action hero since Austin Powers. Whenever he has mooted ostensibly strong measures in the past, he has offered energy-intensive industries - in other words, the biggest polluters - massive loopholes (particularly in the operation of the EU's emissions trading system). This is akin to Batman signing a pact with the Joker.

Our "hero" also used his encounter with Arnie - in Vienna - to state that "sustainability is now deeply engrained in all our policies".

That must have been news to Günter Oettinger, the man Barroso appointed as the Union's energy commissioner. When the then European Community introduced a law providing for freedom of information on the environment back in 1990, it implicitly recognised that sustainability requires transparency. Yet Oettinger continues to peddle dodgy ideas, without being totally upfront about who put them in his head.

His latest contribution to the annual general meeting of the rich and powerful, the World Economic Forum in Davos offers a case in point. Oettinger availed of his Alpine sojourn to plug The Carbon Crunch, a recent book by Dieter Helm. In the transcript of his speech, Oettinger simply calls Helm an "Oxford academic". There was no acknowledgement that Helm was made a personal adviser to Oettinger in 2011 or that Helm has his own consulting firm. Helm's website gives no details of who his clients are - although Oxera, a firm that he founded, indicates that providing advice on energy issues to the private sector is one of its main activities. He also does not appear to have signed up to the EU's register of "interest representatives".

Evangelist

These omissions are hugely problematic. Helm is something of an evangelist for shale gas. In a 2011 piece published by the Centre for European Reform (CER), he exulted over how shale gas "turns out to be super-abundant" and predicted that switching from coal to gas could halve Europe's carbon dioxide emissions. The CER is a little bit more open about its clients than Helm: the latest available annual report for the "think tank" says that it receives funding from BG Group (formerly British Gas), BP and Shell, along with a number of weapons manufacturers and banks. The idea that it is a neutral forum for analysis and debate is, therefore, risible.

Helm's enthusiasm has rubbed off on Oettinger. The "energy roadmap" that Oettinger issued - with Helm's assistance - says that "as conventional shale gas imports decline", Europe will have to rely on "potential indigenous shale gas exploitation".

Promoting shale gas as a panacea is similarly misleading to promoting Canada as an exponent of "global leadership" on climate or Barroso as an "action hero".

Because it is found in shale rock reservoirs deep underground, shale gas is more difficult to extract than conventional gas. The method used to extract it - hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" - involves widespread ecological damage, both from drilling and the use of chemicals such as benzene, a known cause of cancer.

Exit route from coal

Not everyone in the European Commission shares Oettinger's faith in shale gas. A report for the Commission's "climate action" department concluded that shale gas activities have a bigger impact on the environment than oil and conventional gas. One particularly worrying aspect of its extraction is that it would probably release significant quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

I agree with Helm on one thing: we need an exit route from coal. Despite the EU's commitments to reduce fossil fuel use, the amount of energy produced by coal rose by 50% in France and Britain during the first three months of 2012, when compared to the same period in 2011.

The exit route should be obvious: subsidise wind and solar power heavily (don't leave energy issues up to the market, as Oettinger has argued). Pinning hopes on a shale gas "revolution" is a dangerous distraction from the work that needs to be done now. The only people who stand to benefit from this distraction are corporations determined to burn every fossil fuel they can find - along with the planet itself.

•First published by , 10-17 February 2013.

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