Surprising validators’ role in the shale gas debate, part one.

Isurprising validator’ve talked about surprising validators before. An SV is essentially someone who gives permission to their group to see something different. Within some parts of the environmentalist community, no matter how much scientific proof showing shale is good for the climate comes from other studies, it’s so counter to trend that it actually makes some dig in their heels even further. An SV is someone who is relatively unimpeachable, who allows followers to think different, something difficult when belief and facts collide:

In a new study, a Yale Law School professor, Dan Kahan, finds that the divide over belief in evolution between more and less religious people is wider among people who otherwise show familiarity with math and science, which suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of information. When he instead tested whether respondents knew the theory of evolution, omitting mention of belief, there was virtually no difference between more and less religious people with high scientific familiarity. In other words, religious people knew the science; they just weren’t willing to say that they believed in it.

Mr. Kahan’s study suggests that more people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views. This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.

A case in point this week in the UK. Drs Paul Ekins and Christophe Mc Glade of University College London published a study on remaining carbon resources and what we should do with them. Given the story appeared in the Guardian by inveterate methanophobe Damian Carrington, both sides could almost see what was coming and cater perceptions about the research at the headline only stage.

Vast amounts of oil in the Middle East, coal in the US, Australia and China and many other fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to prevent dangerous climate change, according to the first analysis to identify which existing reserves cannot be burned.

But way, way down past the fold, after both pro- and anti- would normally either put their fist in the air or roll their eyeballs, Dr Ekins says something surprising:

The research also highlights the contradiction of governments seeking to maximise their nation’s fossil fuel extraction, as in the UK, while simultaneously pledging to limit global warming to 2C. Ekins said if governments approved new fossil fuel production, they should be asked what resources elsewhere would not be exploited.

If some UK shale gas resources turn out to be economically viable, and provided the local environmental impacts can be made acceptable, I would say we should use them,” he said. “But the caveat is what fossil fuels should we then not be using from somewhere else, if we are going to keep within the carbon budget. That is a question I have never heard asked by a policy maker in this country.”

Caveat there may well be, if it was asked, and at least the question has now been framed by Paul Ekins who is certainly in the top five of UK climate scientists.

My response would be that if the UK uses it’s own shale resources, it has two possible displacements. One is coal, but if the UK used gas to displace coal, the UK’s relatively small, and shrinking, coal imports will have little or no effect on world coal prices. US coal, or to be exact the displacing of US coal demand by gas, has had an impact in that coal became much cheaper on world markets, although not it must be stressed because the US exported more. Coal became cheap because coal production elsewhere increased with lower prices.

 By the way, this welcome new realism is also on show at Parliamentary evidence by the Grantham Institute on the environmental costs of fracking

The main points of this submission:

  • Shifting from coal to natural gas – either from conventional or unconventional domestic sources, or from imports – for electricity generation could help the UK power sector to decarbonise in the near term. Gas-fired power plants could also play an important back-up role as the share of renewable electricity in generation increases.

  • In the longer term, gas-fired power plants will have to be either replaced by low-carbon alternatives or fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) if the UK is to comply with its emission reduction targets.

  • A lower risk option would be a ‘dash’ for smart gas, where natural gas, including domestic shale gas, is used judiciously in those areas where it offers the greatest value in decarbonising the power sector, preventing the undesirable lock in of infrastructure for fossil fuels.

If the UK cuts gas imports, then those gas imports, using the US coal example, will spill over into world markets making gas even cheaper. That, as Paul Ekins well knows, is good for the world climate. Here I must note for conspiracy theorists, that Paul Ekins and I have actually been on the same stage together, at last year’s LSE Energy Conference. Perhaps we both learned something from the experience and the collegial exchange of information and opinions. Perhaps everyone is finally getting smarter. Although judging by some of the more paranoid individuals expressing their opinion to the Environmental Audit Committee, the message will never get through to some people.

This is the first of three examples of surprising validators. Next up, the (very) surprising Art Berman

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