The International Energy Agency (IEA) yesterday set out the ‘golden rules’ for exploiting natural gas while allaying concerns over environmental and social impacts.
The extraction of unconventional sources of natural gas like shale gas using hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ have attracted controversy after reputedly polluting water supplies in the US and causing earth tremors in the north west of England.
The practice has been put on hold in New York state and the Canadian province of Quebec and banned outright in France until safety concerns can be put to rest.
But the IEA says extracting shale gas can be safe if done correctly.
“The technology and the know-how already exist for unconventional gas to be produced in an environmentally acceptable way,” says IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven.
She warns, however, that public concerns could halt the “unconventional gas revolution in its tracks” unless environmental and social concerns can be properly addressed.
“The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance; governments must ensure that appropriate policies and regulatory regimes are in place,” she says.
The IEA’s ‘golden rules’ for achieving this include full transparency, measuring and monitoring environmental impacts and engaging with local communities.
Drilling sites should be chosen carefully to avoid leaks from wells into nearby aquifers and there should be rigorous assessment and monitoring of water needs and waste water.
Taking a careful approach to shale gas and the like will likely raise costs by around 7%, the IEA estimates, but the additional costs will be limited.
For a larger development with multiple wells, for example, lower operating costs could offset the investment in measures to reduce environmental impacts.
“If this new industry is to prosper, it needs to earn and maintain its social license to operate,” says IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, the report’s main author.
But the IEA report admits that while taking the ‘golden rules’ approach to shale gas will reduce energy-related CO2 emissions by 1.3% compared with an alternative approach, any route including shale gas leaves global emissions well above the trajectory needed to limit temperature rises to 2°C.
According to Keith Allott head of Climate Change at WWF-UK:
“A golden age for gas is clearly very far from a golden age for the planet. Buried in the depths of this report is the bombshell that a global dash for unconventional gas will condemn us to warming of at least 3.5°C.”
Proponents of shale gas claim it could provide a short term environmental benefit as it is lower in emissions than other fossil fuels like coal and oil.
“Those who claim that shale gas is some sort of wonder fuel that can that tackle climate change are seriously misleading the public,” says Allott. “In a country like the UK it is important to recognise that there is not even a short term benefit to the availability of shale gas… the prospect of a dash for gas now appears to be the biggest threat to meeting UK carbon targets.”
For further information:
Global CO2 emissions reach record high, warns IEA (28-May)
UK Environment Agency gives OK to fracking ‘if safe’ (9-May)
UK government calls for input into gas generation strategy (3-May)
UK looks set to move ahead with shale gas fracking (17-Apr)
31 May 2012