icrn phw energy cse dte gobar times rwh csestore iep aaeti
Editor's Page

Shale gas: dubious game-changer

16 Comments
Mar 15, 2012 | From the print edition

shale gasThe United States has always been the climate change renegade. For the past 25-odd years, since negotiations for a global agreement to combat the threat of this potential catastrophe began, the US has been the naysayer, pushing against a deal, weakening the draft and always hiding its inaction behind the legitimate growth of emissions in countries like China and India.

This much we know. We also know that this issue has lost so much traction in that fuel-guzzling country that Barack Obama, who came with a promise of change, has backed down on any discussion on climate change. In 2008, after he was elected on a promise of change in the climate change policies of the Republican government, Obama announced, “this is the moment when the rise of oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. But since then, little has happened to cut emissions at the scale and pace needed. In the current elections, Obama does not mention the C-word and climate change is a non-issue. The US has no interest in taking the lead in this matter. But, as I said, this is what we know. There is a new development afoot that could push the US to ‘clean energy’ but the zillion-dollar question is if this will be good or bad for the future.

The US, it is said, is close to a shale gas-revolution. Reserves of this natural gas—which is extracted from deep rock formations using hydraulic fracturing—are said to be huge. The US Energy Investigation Agency’s 2012 estimate is that recoverable natural gas reserves are some 860 trillion cubic feet—enough to last 40 years at current consumption levels.

The most important development is that this highly intrusive extraction of gas, which involves pumping a concoction of water, chemicals and sand deep into the earth to unlock gas trapped in shale formations, is turning out to be cheap. The price of extraction and sale has dropped to as low as US $2.5-3.00 million cubic feet—making it so dirt cheap that it can compete with coal and all other energy sources. It is the game-changer in global energy supply and also a possible game-changer in climate change. The combustion of natural gas emits roughly half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal or oil per unit of output. This means the US can substitute its coal power stations with gas, cut its emissions, without doing anything to reduce energy use. It can also replace gas in the transport sector, by either using it as compressed gas or liquefying it. All this means more business, more jobs and less pollution, without the dreaded C-word and the imperative of changing lifestyles or reducing consumption.

The excitement is so high that the country, it would seem, has little time to spare on the downside of this energy source. There are clear present dangers in shale gas extraction. One, the opportunity cost of the huge quantities of water, needed to push open the gas trapped in rocks. Two, there is potential of deadly contamination of groundwater from the mixture of chemicals used in the process. Not enough is known about the chemical concoctions, because companies say the chemical formulae, essential to break down shale, is proprietary and they will not disclose it. The water and chemicals first pumped down are also pumped back up— water flows back up the hole after the wells have been fractured. Disposal of this wastewater is a challenge, admits the USEPA. Then there is the danger of earthquakes, caused by both hydraulic fracturing and disposal of wastewater into deep wells. As yet, little is known or understood of these problems.

Local communities in US states are on the warpath against moves to change land use to allow drilling and against contamination of water. Pennsylvania’s senate has passed legislation allowing drilling but a New York court has struck down the power to change land-use zoning.

US environmental groups are also divided—between the enormous potential of this gas-transition to combat climate change and the present dangers of its extraction. Sierra Club—a powerful green group—is a strong proponent of gas. A recent expose in the US media put this down to the huge donations—often secret—it has received from gas companies to run its anti-coal campaign. But all said, the push for this ‘clean’ gas is inexorable.

The other big question is what will the gas-rush do to the fight against climate change? The world needs to find inventive technologies for the transition away from fossil fuels. Natural gas is at best a transitory option. But the new availability of this underground reserve at cheap rates will mean that there will be less incentive for new research and investment in new technologies. Solar energy, even with its decreasing costs, will be uncompetitive to gas. The fuel switch at cheap rates will also provide no real price option for industries to invest in efficiencies or new clean technologies. What will this do to the clean energy futures of the world?

The fact is that the world does not need another cheap energy option. It needs options, which will drive it to secure its future, not just the safeguard the present. The shale gas ‘revolution’ could be what does not work in this interest.

AddThis

VERY GOOD WORK FOR KEEPING PEOLE LIKE US INFORMED

2 March 2012
Posted by
binod.kumar.bawri

Thanks Sunita for this good update. In Germany we are now charting the path to a largely renewable power system. Gas has its role, but a transitional and diminishing one, mainly as a backup that "fills the cracks" given the fluctuations of renewables. The more we are able to manage fluctuating sources, the less we will need gas. A grid is clearly the answer here.

On another note, Joe Romm is showing that natural gas is clearly not the answer to the climate challenge:
http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2012/03/01/428764/ddrop-in-warming-require...

2 March 2012
Posted by
Jörg Haas

Thanks for putting the issue in a succint way. I live within 50 miles of the fracking hotbed in Ohio and have been reading about the fracking business in local and national dailies here. It is not just the quality of groundwater and the dangers of earthquake which are coming up as challenges, but the environmental impacts of using chemical proppants as well.

2 March 2012
Posted by
A. Samanta

Thank you for this informative article

Energy consumption correlates with development.

From an economic perspective if power generation and heating homes can be done more cheaply with natural gas and at the same time reduce CO2 emissions then I believe there should be no debate--we should endorse fuel switching.

We do need to be concerned about the impact on our water resources and monitor this closely. At the same time we need to recognize the negative impact of acid mine runoff from abandoned coal mines and the negative impacts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from coal burning power plants. There is very little sulfur in natural gas which is another point in its favor. while it is true that natural gas is a transitional step it is very much a step in the right direction if it can be produced with minimal impact.

2 March 2012
Posted by
Jim G

I am adding/supplementing some important points missed out and stressing on issues touched briefly in the article:

1. In the US, a lot of studies are being conducted to ascertain the environmental impact. NY State has already banned fracking for shale gas. Exploring for shale gas, which could make the US wholly self-sufficient in gas, is a strategic decision for the US. It is intimately connected with security of energy supply (also for the Europeans) and of course price. Another important factor is that in the US minerals below the ground on private property do not belong to the State. Again, this is a state subject in the US. A number of committees have been formed to asses the pros and cons. This is not the last that you would hear about shale gas.
2. Environmental concerns also loom large. These include ill-effects include the possible pollution of groundwater by the chemicals in fracking fluids, and the leakage of methane, a gas that aggravates global warming. Another fear is that fracking may cause earth tremors. Recent seismic activity near a test well in Britain has been linked to it. Such concerns are real and widespread—in August South Africa followed France’s lead and slapped a moratorium on fracking. More studies will be needed before the public is reassured. A greater problem is that fracking needs tremendous quantities of water.
3. India is to go in a big way for shale gas. Narain, who is close to the Establishment, should persuade the government to ensure that proper environmental studies are carried out before explorers are allowed to look for shale gas.

5 March 2012
Posted by
Sudhir Jatar

1. In the US, a lot of studies are being conducted to ascertain the environmental impact. NY State has already banned fracking for shale gas. Exploring for shale gas, which could make the US wholly self-sufficient in gas, is a strategic decision for the US. It is intimately connected with security of energy supply (also for the Europeans) and of course price. Another important factor is that in the US minerals below the ground on private property do not belong to the State. Again, this is a state subject in the US. A number of committees have been formed to asses the pros and cons. This is not the last that you would hear about shale gas.
2. Environmental concerns also loom large. These include ill-effects include the possible pollution of groundwater by the chemicals in fracking fluids, and the leakage of methane, a gas that aggravates global warming. Another fear is that fracking may cause earth tremors. Recent seismic activity near a test well in Britain has been linked to it. Such concerns are real and widespread—in August South Africa followed France’s lead and slapped a moratorium on fracking. More studies will be needed before the public is reassured. A greater problem is that fracking needs tremendous quantities of water.
3. India is to go in a big way for shale gas. Narain, who is close to the Establishment, should persuade the government to ensure that proper environmental studies are carried out before explorers are allowed to look for shale gas.

5 March 2012
Posted by
Sudhir Jatar

Only two kinds of people live in present, ascetics and thugs. Present world is ruled by thugs in one form or the other. This information further strengthen the dismal reality.
Instead of making genuine efforts to reduce pre capita energy consumption USA the leader of thugs is embarking on a precess which may endanger the future of humanity.

5 March 2012
Posted by
Nikhil Kumar

A couple of years ago the noted economis, S. A. Aiyar, wrote a interesting article in TOI on the prospects of shale gas....till this piece appeared in DTE...

Very well written article.
We hope ONGC has no programme in shale gas!

5 March 2012
Posted by
Dr. Ravuri

The dangers of hydraulic fracturing or fracking by injecting a mix of high pressure water & chemicals to release the gas trapped in shale rocks are well highlighted. However, if by employing new techniques or minimizing the problems of water contamination, earth quakes, disposal of waste water etc. this gas is made available to meet pressing energy requirement, then we should not have unnecessary fear in mind.

Further, as always there is huge level difference in promising change & effecting change, so what U.S. president Mr. Obama is now doing regarding climate change policies is not amazing.

Regards.

5 March 2012
Posted by
Balbir Singh

Very Good Informative article by Sunitaji. Appreciate your crusading work for environment in this hypocritical Business and political system, that exists the world over. Obama or MMS are just 2 faces of the same coin, called Imbeciles.They talk more than they can deliver.Lobbys and Vested Interests Rule this Planet today, who cares for its Longevity or for the Goodness of its Civilization.Shale gas can do the trick, but many vested businesses cannot allow it to happen.The law of diminishing returns is not accepted by Business today.

5 March 2012
Posted by
Manoj Narayan

Unfortunately, much of all energy discussion seems to occur in isolation. One needs a rational analysis of need, economics, energy security, and environmental and climate impacts. Some quick lessons from this and other such articles:

1) The phrase fossil-fuel guzzling America should be changed to "the global fossil-fuel guzzling well-to-do". I dont see the difference between need versus greed amongst the rich in China, India, the US, middle East, or even the starved Africa. The Gandhian mantra of -- there is enough to satisfy the needs of humanity but not its greed remains a goal across the world. We would all love to wave a magic wand.

2) The environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing are increasingly being recognized and worked on. For every protester in the US I can show you one whose life has been transformed by the economic opportunity, so such stories should not be the basis of discussion. The focus should be on doing any such energy extraction with minimal impact and transforming to cleaner systems wherever possible. Today fracking is an R&D challenge. Already, in most cases [wells] the impacts are less than from coal mines, even after 250 years of coal extraction. There is no question that laws, regulations and oversight is needed as no energy company has been adequately responsible to the environment anywhere in the world unless forced to. These too are being worked on and as expected, gas companies would like a free bonanza as long as possible.

3) The shale gas resource in many countries is so large that it will not be ignored. The challenge is to create the funding to do the R&D and the political will to provide the regulations and oversight.

4) President Obama did not just willingly capitulate to the energy industry -- he has to heed the cry for jobs and overcome the recession. He and secretary Chu have to face the economic and scale-up realities of renewable resources to power the USA TODAY! Until there are cost-effective alternatives [large scale solar is still in its infancy], we are stuck with fossil-fuels.

5) The US is, like all other countries, a bureaucracy and subject to political expediency. Why remain obsessed by it's follies. Why not do better and gain the business opportunity?

6) Show me a credible road map for how to meet the energy needs for power generation of real societies (barring countries like Norway, ..., who are rich in hydro) without the large-scale use of fossil-fuels until well after 2050.

7) Teaching people how to make efficient use of energy should be our primary focus. Let us teach our kids in school, teach by example the building industry to build more efficient homes, factories to adopt less environmentally harmful processes, transform transport to less use of single person in a private car (or in India the driver and the malik). Without even well-meaning people knowing how to change, we are all indulging in wishful thinking and unrealizable idealism. Focus on creating people like Mr Swaminathan who transformed Delhi's metro! Even its construction and existence had its environmental impacts, but overall it is a plus. I travel by it whenever possible when visiting Delhi.

6 March 2012
Posted by
Rajan Gupta

The metro man is Mr. Shreedharan. Of course Mr. Swaminathan has also transformed but in another field. We do need more of them.

6 March 2012
Posted by
sudhinder thakur

My apologies for the mistake. My basic point is societies that do not create, nurture, value and empower people such as Mr. Shreedharan, Mr. Swaminathan, Prof. Amartya Sen, Prof Homi Bhabha, Pundit Bhimsen Joshi, Birju Maharaj, ... will always be left behind and toyed with. These dedicated individuals showed us how to transform societies. While most of us cannot be them, we can certainly help create the system that produces and empowers them.

6 March 2012
Posted by
Rajan Gupta

Yes, not only the State E&P companies but also private players are in the run to explore for shale gas in India!

6 March 2012
Posted by
Sudhir Jatar

The editorial/article is very good and timely. But the problem is that USA is a bully in real terms. We may talk whatever we may like, USA, its government and people do whatever they like to do.
They intimidate everyone else either directly or through its control of IMF, World Bank, UN etc.
As far as our government and its officials are concerned, they can be moulded easily by money or some favour.
Still, people like you must carry on the campaign. One day or the other the world will change.

6 March 2012
Posted by
Dr.M.A. Haque

I think you should also read this...which contradicts some of the statements made by you.

http://sierraclub.typepad.com/michaelbrune/2012/02/the-sierra-club-and-n...

9 March 2012
Posted by
prithvi

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


(Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.)
CSE WEBNET
Follow us ON
Follow grebbo on Twitter    Google Plus  DTE Youtube  rss