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Shale gas: can it be a bridge to renewables or will it extend reliance on fossil fuels?

  • 23 Jan 2012, 21:00
  • Robin Webster

What will be the future impacts of our new-found ability to get gas out of shale? In the US, shale gas is becoming an increasingly important energy source, and such has been the expansion of production over the past decade that gas prices have fallen dramatically as a result of what analysts are calling a " shale-driven glut".

But what does that mean for us, and could the same thing happen in the UK? Here, shale gas currently has the status of a classic environmental controversy, rather than a big energy transformation.

While a vocal lobby argues that shale gas has the possibilty to bring " cheap, plentiful and green" energy to British shores, their opponents argue that the controversial extraction process (known as 'fracking') is environmentally damaging, and that shale gas is a distraction from renewables and energy efficiency. Even more tantalising to the media is the prospect of confrontation between a Texan company and the tweed belt of the Home Counties over proposals to prospect for the gas.

This was the stage for the latest in a series of seminars from Policy Network, this one entitled "shale gas: positive breakthrough or environmental disaster?" The event gave the platform to author of the Politics of Climate Change and Policy Network fellow traveller Anthony Giddens, as well as emeritus professor of petroleum policy at Dundee Professor Paul Stevens, and James Elston of Palladian Energy (which seems to be a shale gas consultancy).

Shale gas in the USA...

The impact in the USA has certainly been pretty phenomenal. EIA figures show that in 2009 16% of domestic gas production in the USA came from shale - by 2035 it could be as much as 47%. In its Energy Outlook released last week, BP cited research showing the the US could become a net exporter of gas by 2030 off the back of shale production.

International geopolitics forms a fascinating part of the picture. To give one example - at the seminar, Anthony Giddens discussed the impacts on the relationship between Russia and its neighbours. Indigenous production of shale gas could release Eastern European countries, like Poland, from the dominance of Russia - a prospect that apparently has Russia somewhat worried.

Shale gas in Europe

So could the 'shale gas boom' take off in Europe as it has in the States? In the discussion, the general consensus was 'not immediately', for a variety of reasons. Prospecting for gas in the Sussex commuter belt, for example, is a much more complex proposition than it is in the relatively sparsely populated US. Infrastructure for extracting and shifting gas around also isn't as developed in Europe as it is in the States, and differing approaches to mineral rights also alter landowners' reactions to the prospect of gas discoveries under their land.

Professor Stevens argued that a significant amount of shale gas produced in Europe will not be produced in the next 5 years, and that it will not be a "serious possibility" for 15-20. James Elston - an energetic and enthusiastic proponent of shale gas - seemed to agree. These seem like important figures to bear in mind in relation to more short-term discussions around energy costs, and particularly household bills.

Environmental impacts - fracking

The 'fracking' process by which shale gas is extracted from rocks is famously controversial, and the speakers discussed the impacts, including a recent minor earthquake in Blackpool and the impact on ground water aquifers.

Mr Elston argued that there has been "more than a million fracks" in the USA with no successful class action lawsuits as a result. He also cited research from the British Geological Society showing that the earthquake was "very minor". At the seminar however there seemed to be a general agreement that the local impacts of extraction are an important part of the debate, but probably not intractable with sufficient regulation.

Environmental impacts - greenhouse gas emissions

Perhaps of more interest (to us, anyway - you may feel different if you live in Blackpool) is the impact of shale gas on greenhouse gas emissions, which has unsurprisingly received somewhat less attention from the press than earthquakes.

When burnt, natural gas produces around half the emissions of coal. As a result, shale gas is often touted as a potential 'transition fuel' - that is, a cheap and relatively low-emissions fossil fuel that could help meet our energy needs until (hopefully) emissions cutting renewables/nuclear/CCS take over.

It's the extraction process which complicates working out what the 'carbon footprint' of shale gas actually is. Fracking can cause methane to leak at the same time as gas is extracted. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and a study by Cornell University published in 2008 suggested that as a result shale gas has a 'carbon footprint' almost as high as coal. Not good, if you want to use it as a cleaner energy source.

However, the Cornell report has been heavily criticised by other studies since, and it was pretty roundly abused by the speakers at the seminar. Mr Stevens in fact argued that the main advantage of the study was that it was so bad that it prompted others to take a look at the same question.

Other studies, including a literature survey by the Manchester Tyndall Centre, an American paper published in 2011, and a recently published paper in Environmental Research Letters all appear to indicate that whilst emissions from shale gas are slightly higher than 'conventional' gas, the difference is not that massive.

Mr Elston also pointed out that letting methane leak out from your gas plant is both uneconomic and not particularly safe (as it has a tendency to explode), which seemed a reasonable point. There was however universal agreement that not enough is known and more research was needed in this area.

On the face of it, then, shale gas could make an effective 'bridging fuel' to renewables. But if that's what you're after, there is a significant stumbling block - the economics. Advocates of shale gas are also often keen to point out that shale is cheaper than renewables, and won't require subsidies, thus posing a " competitive threat" to all forms of renewable energy". If that's true, and shale gas out-competes renewables instead of out-competing coal, it's not really going to help with cutting emissions in the medium-to-long term - after 2020, say.

The think-tank Policy Exchange have accepted that burning more gas now may mean building gas plants which then have to be mothballed in the 2020s, or retrofitted with Carbon Capture and Storage. (See pages 9-10.) When we put the question of whether this was a viable investment option to Mr Elston he responded (perhaps a little evasively) that this was a question for the politicians.

Shale gas poses some big questions, and dilemmas about the difficulty of looking into the future. Probably most key is whether there is a realistic chance of significant shale gas production from Europe over the next decade, and if not, (as the speakers appeared to agree on), whether gas prices in Europe will fall as a result of cheaper prices in the USA. Will shale gas bridge, or will it distract? There are questions still to be answered - by someone.

 

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