What role will shale gas play in the future?

Four years ago the Cardiff Green Party’s policy expert on energy, Andy Chyba received a call from a lady from Llantrithyd, a village in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. The area had been selected to test the existence of shale gas. The lady asked Andy to come along and speak in a meeting. Llantrithyd is one the wealthiest areas of Wales; rich people with expensive houses, and an economy based mostly on the tourism industry. The entire village attended the meeting, but what Andy found in those people was a selfish motivation. They were concerned about the impact that the drilling process could have on their property prices. They were not interested in the big picture. They were NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard).

So Andy started to explain to them all the implications that shale gas and fracking can have on the environment, therefore in everyone’s life; the importance of the energy policies and the consequences for global warming and climate change. Soon all those people started seeing the big picture and getting involved in movements such as Frack-free Wales and linked with anti-fracking organizations across and beyond the UK. They stopped thinking like NIMBYs and started thinking in terms of NOMPs (Not On My Planet).

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in early November was clear suggesting that carbon dioxide emissions must be considerably reduced or our planet will suffer catastrophic consequences. The report claims for the necessity of investing in low-carbon-emission sources. “There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act, the time is not on our side,” said the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon at IPCC.

The report says that carbon emissions, mainly from burning coal, oil, and conventional gas are currently rising to record levels, not falling, so the decisions to move to other sources of energy must be made now. A previous IPCC report in April already pointed out at the role of shale gas as a low-carbon-emission source, which could be the coal substitute and the bridge to renewables in a transition until the latter are ready.

However, there are some concerns. First of all, shale gas still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of the gas and also through the process of developing the source. In addition, methane, which is 34 times stronger than CO2, is also leaked from the well head, pipelines and storage facilities in the extraction of shale gas. Nigel Baker from Cardiff Greenpeace said: “Shale gas is not an oil substitute or a coal substitute, it is like this tricky lower alcohol drink that it still has alcohol on it”. Similarly, the argument of the bridge to renewables is not embraced by green organizations. “The bridge excuse doesn’t work in the US where they have said so for years, as long as they can make money out from shale they will keep doing it,” said Nigel Baker.

Another concern related to shale gas is the method used to extract it. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” consists of injecting a large amount of a mix of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the well creating cracks in the rock formation revealing the gas. Anti-fracking organizations claim that this practice has negative impacts for the environment and people; for instance high-pressure injection could lead to possible tremors and the chemicals used could pollute underground water.

Nevertheless, there have been some efforts to improve this technology trying to make it safer and greener. GasFrac is an American company, which has introduced a new method for the extraction of shale gas without using water at all. A gel made from propane –a hydrocarbon that is already naturally present underground– in combination with benign chemicals such as magnesium oxide and ferric sulfate replaces the water. This process has been used 2,500 times in 700 wells in Canada and the US. Other innovators are working to substitute diesel-powered drilling equipment with engines powered by natural gas or solar energy.

An infrared camera spotting leaks at fracking sides, which can then be plugged, could solve the problem of methane emissions. It costs $80,000 to $100.000 but “it can pay for itself because the more leaks you fix, the more gas you have to sell,” Environmental Defense Fund manager Ben Ratner told National Geographic. But one of the obstacles for these green innovations is the economic aspect. For instance water-free fracking would cost 25 per cent more than conventional fracking but the generally low price of fresh water reduces incentives to invest in it.

The US started fracking in 2008 and has become gas self-sufficient for the next 100 years. It will also become oil self-sufficient soon thanks to shale. Its recent decision to stop buying oil from the Middle East has directly affected the energy market where the oil prices are slowing down. Stock analyst Ismael de la Cruz said: “the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) wants to avoid the US becoming the main oil exporter in the future; therefore they know that keeping low oil prices allows them to keep controlling the market”.

OPEC is slowing oil prices down to make American shale production unprofitable, which is not bringing any benefit to OPEC either. “Personally, I think that the current oil price makes difficult the industry to be profitable,” said Bankinter senior analyst Belén San José. But it seems that OPEC’s strategy will not affect American shale production. Citigroup commodities research strategist Eric Lee said in an interview for CNBC: “Even if US crude, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), hits $70 per barrel US shale production growth will not slow down.”

There are also potential shale areas in Europe through which the old continent could follow the path of the US. “An investment in shale gas in Europe would bring many benefits like for example stopping the reliance on Russia for gas,” said Ismael de la Cruz.

However, a big opposition has stopped the process. A majority of the population in countries like the UK, for instance, opposes shale gas and fracking, and claims for a real investment in renewable energy. The Cardiff Green Party’s policy expert on energy and fracking, Andy Chyba said: “We should tell ourselves that shale gas in the ground is not going anywhere. If the worst case scenario happens and we struggle with the sources, it is still going to be there, but in the meantime forget it and try to move to renewables.”

But renewables require a big initial investment and their results are only seen at long term. Only countries like Denmark, Germany, Norway or Sweden, who started switching to renewable energy a decade ago, will be self-sufficient soon.

The EU has launched grant programmes to support and develop renewable energies but these sources will still need years to show results and in any case they will not supply all energy needed. “Renewable energies will be used as a complement of conventional energies because it is too difficult that they can subsist by themselves,” said Belén San José. Also the current economic situation of the EU makes impossible a huge investment on renewables now.

Political decisions need to be made immediately. In early November too, China and the US, the biggest world polluters, compromised for the first time to reduce their levels of carbon emissions by 2030. But they did not clarify what sort of sources they will use to achieve this aim. “There is no sign from them to do anything quick enough,” said Andy Chyba.

Global concern is rising. In September, more than 300,000 people marched on the streets of New York, and hundred of thousands more in many cities around the world urging international leaders to vault environmental threat to the top of the global agenda. Negotiators are working these days at the UN Climate Change Conference celebrated in Lima (Peru) in a draft text, which will be adopted in Paris next year to commit countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Paris is also the next step for activists and green organizations, who are preparing a big demonstration. Campaigner against climate change Jonathan Neale said in a conference at Cardiff University: “Paris 2015 is not the end. It is the beginning of a long way.”

The most important assessment of global warming published yet urges to change rapidly the situation. Carbon emissions have to fall to zero by the end of the century; therefore coal, conventional gas and oil must gradually disappear. Renewable energies are the greenest option to avoid climate change but it does not seem that governments have done their job on time. The reality shows that we will need other sorts of sources to supply energy while the transition to renewables is made. Shale gas could be the bridge to achieve this goal only if the extraction process is safe and the carbon emissions can be controlled. Taking into consideration the economic aspect of this source and its likely proliferation, it seems that shale gas will play an important role in the future.