Shale gas in the future EU energy mix?

New studies in the European Union finally add some scientific basis to many of the debates on shale gas (or unconventional gas).

This morning I downloaded two reports commissioned by the European Commission (and authored by AEA Technology) on shale gas.

One report is titled “climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU” and weighs in at 158 pages of analysis. It would perhaps be useful to clarify a bit of the terminology used in discussions on shale gas. First, shale gas is considered “unconventional” because of how it is extracted. Shale gas is gas found inside shale rock formations (hundreds of) metres below the surface of the earth. To extract this gas, companies drill into the rock, then pump a combination of water and chemicals to “fracture” these rocks and capture the gas that is released from this process. This process is commonly called “fracking”. The technology to access gas in these more unconventional ways (as opposed to pumping gas from a large field of gas deposits, which is “conventional”) has developed greatly, and costs for the process have plummeted – to the extent that there is now an excess of gas supply in the world (what the IEA calls a ‘golden age of gas‘), since the US has developed its domestic shale gas resources to such an extent that it’s exporting gas now rather than importing it, contrary to expectations of just ten years ago.

Anyway, let’s get back to these reports. The results of this first report I mentioned above can be summed up as follows:

1. Shale gas is generally accepted (but not everyone agrees) to have higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas and lower levels than coal (and nobody agrees on by how much)

2. There are some EU laws that are relevant for reducing the climate impact of shale gas (such as the environmental impact assessment directive, and the emissions trading directive), but, actually, the report authors don’t really know for sure if this is sufficient

So the overall conclusion is that there’s probably an impact on the climate, but it can’t be quantified. Adding my own opinion, I would say that any fossil fuel has too big an impact on the climate (this includes even conventional gas) and that we’re lunatics for even considering it as an option for the future energy mix.

Then there’s the second report. This one is titled: “support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbon operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe” (translates as: “fracking is bad for the environment and for health”). Here’s a summary:

1. High risk of groundwater contamination

2. High risk of surface water contamination

3. High risk to water resources generally

4. High risk to biodiversity

5. High risk of noise impacts

6. High risk of increased traffic

7. High risk of land-taking

Most of the high risks associated with shale gas involve the method of extraction – using toxic chemicals to fracture the rock deep underground – and the lack of guarantees against chemical spills, well wall cracking, contamination of groundwater and contamination of soil etc. Poisoned water is certainly not ideal for the health of humans, and certainly not ideal for the health of the food crops that we eat (that may be growing on poisoned soil).

I am providing here a snapshot of some of the findings of these two reports – the second one is nearly 300 pages – but the main messages are in support of the idea that renewable energy is good, shale gas is bad. That is a simplification. But from the environmental, health, climate perspectives, I don’t think this is a conclusion that can be denied. Wind, solar, ocean generated energy does not poison your water or food supplies and does not emit greenhouse gases or involve extracting materials from the earth in a dangerous way. Why is there even a debate?

Check out the reports for yourself and make up your own mind if you think I’m too biased!

But, you know, I haven’t even once mentioned earthquakes...

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Filed under Climate change, Energy, European Union

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