Shale gas: the facts beyond the myths

Natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources - not a replacement, argues Mónica V. Cristina of Shale Gas Europe

As one of the most hotly debated energy sources in Europe, shale gas has created big expectations but also raised numerous questions specifically around its potential impact on the environment. 

The most common claims of environmental harm leveled against shale gas, and the technique used to extract it, hydraulic fracturing, are well known. They include: contamination of drinking water with chemicals and methane, a worse greenhouse gas profile than hard coal and the utilisation of “hundreds of hazardous chemicals” that gas companies “keep secret”. Environmental groups also fear that investments in shale gas infrastructure will undercut the economics of renewables. 

Hydraulic fracturing

First, hydraulic fracturing has been used in Europe for decades to stimulate conventional oil and gas wells, water wells and geothermal wells. In Germany alone, more than 300 wells have been stimulated using this technique. Furthermore, when looking at the facts and scientific evidence Shale Gas Europe concludes that none of the claims above stand up to close scrutiny.

First, the concerns around water pollution. Several measures can be put in place to ensure water protection and these are employed by industry. The proper casing of the shale gas well is in this sense critical for the safety of operations and well construction techniques employ multiple barrier layers of steel and cement to isolate the well from groundwater. In addition, fracturing occurs two to three kilometers below drinking water supplies and are separated from the aquifers by multiple layers of impermeable rock. This point has been made in the peer-reviewed academic paper by Professor Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute, “Hydraulic fractures: How far can they go?” which highlighted that the height of fractures does not exceed 588 meters.

Second, the issue of chemical additives. In Europe, all the additives that will be used in fracturing solutions (representing only 0.5 per cent of the fluids) will have to fully comply with European and national regulations. Contrary to popular belief, the industry supports full disclosure to appropriate regulatory authorities of the chemical additives used in hydraulic fracturing.  

In the US, for example, companies provide information on chemical additives using FracFocus, a project of the U.S. Ground Water Protection Council and U.S. Department of Energy. The general public are able to access specific information via a search, on a well-by-well basis, of the specific compounds used in hydraulic fracturing operations. 

Estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas development are also a controversial issue. However, the European Commission report Climate Impact of Potential Shale Gas Production in the European Union of July 2012, clearly indicates: “The relative comparison with coal is clearer cut. In our analysis, emissions from shale gas generation are significantly lower (41 per cent to 49 per cent) than emissions from electricity generated from coal.” Other recent studies published by top research centres have reached similar conclusions.

Finally, natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources as it can be quickly adjusted to changing demand as well as to the variable nature of energy production from renewables. More importantly, evidence from the United States shows that renewable energy has thrived during the natural gas production boom in the US and it is projected to continue well into the future. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the US wind industry, for example, installed 40% more capacity (wind plants) during the first three quarters of 2012 than the first three quarters of 2011. Fears that shale gas will stall renewable energy development are therefore unfounded. 

Risks can be managed 

No technology is without risk. However, risk can be managed. As the Royal Society pointed out in its report Shale Gas in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, it is possible to develop shale gas safely through a combination of sound regulation and modern technology. 

The European Parliament endorsed this argument too when it decided to reject an EU wide moratorium on shale gas development last November. Through a report on the environmental impacts of shale gas it emphasised that any risks “should be contained through pre-emptive measures including proper planning, testing, use of new and best available technologies, best industry practices” alongside monitoring and robust regulation – something the industry endorses. 

In this respect, it is necessary to understand and concede that there are clear differences between Europe and America. When it comes to environmental regulation, it is worth keeping in mind that Europe’s environmental legislation is in many respects the most advanced in the world. As Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Change, stated via twitter: “Europe is not North Dakota”. Indeed, neither the scale nor the type of development will be similar on this side of the Atlantic. The opportunity for Europe to develop shale gas in a sustainable way, right from the beginning, is within reach. 

Neither should we forget that we are still in an exploration phase, meaning that we are assessing if Europe has the resources and whether they can be sustainably developed. This phase will take years, but it is essential to shed light on Europe’s potential to develop its own domestic natural gas resources. Professor Richard Davies, put this into perspective in an article published recently in the New Statesman: “We have drilled one shale gas well (in the UK). That’s an 8½ inch borehole in Lancashire, a little like pushing a pin through the ceiling of your living room and looking through the hole”.

Grab the opportunity  

The facts show that shale gas can be developed safely and play a key role in the transition to a greener energy future. Increased efficiency and a shift to gas from coal in the power sector have made the United States a leader in cutting energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. "This is a success story based on a combination of policy and technology - policy driving greater efficiency and technology making shale gas production viable," IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol told the Financial Times in May 2012. As a bonus, the shale gas boom has led to an unprecedent manufacturing revival fueled by cheap and abundant gas. 

In the meantime, Europe is falling behind in reducing carbon emissions and reversing the fortunes of the chemical, plastics, aluminium, iron and steel, rubber, coated metals, and glass industries operating in the old continent. The time has come to put aside myths and have an honest and constructive debate on how to sustainably develop shale gas for the sake of Europe’s energy future. 

Useful links

Shale Gas Europe 

Mónica V. Cristina is an advisor to Shale Gas Europe

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