Is shale gas the energy of the future?

What is shale gas?

In recent times US firms have discovered economically viable methods of extracting gas previously trapped inside shale rocks, metamorphosed from clay deposits under pressure and heat.

Extracting this gas requires horizontal drilling into the shale formations deep underground, then creating small explosions to splinter the shale. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals are then poured in to release the trapped gas.

The impact of this new process on the global energy market should not be underestimated. For example, prior to the advent of shale gas extraction, the US was planning to import gas from other countries. Now some experts are suggesting that the US has shale reserves to provide the nation with gas for another 100 years. This situation is likely to be replicated across the globe, including China, Europe and South America.

Shale gas extraction in the UK

The UK has begun to develop its own shale gas extraction capabilities. However, according to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, the UK government needs to put a moratorium on shale gas drilling until the impacts on the environment are understood more fully. In particular, concerns have arisen where shale gas operations have been undertaken in the US, with reports that drinking water has been polluted.

When this situation was raised with by BBC News with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) they received the following response: We are aware that there have been reports from US of issues linked to some shale gas projects. However, we understand that these are only in a few cases and that Cuadrilla (the firm testing for shale gas in Lancashire) has made it clear that there is no likelihood of environmental damage and that it is applying technical expertise and exercising the utmost care as it takes drilling and testing forward. Gauging by this response it would appear that UK ministers do not believe that shale gas drilling poses a threat.

Potential problems

The experience of US households suggests that the confidence of UK ministers may be premature. There have been reports of cattle dying after drinking water from the extraction process that found its way to the surface. Other reports from Pennsylvania claim that residents can actually set fire to their drinking water after methane there leaked into wells!

The Tyndall report says that gas drilling in the UK will give rise to a range of local concerns similar to those in the US including noise pollution, high levels of truck movements and land use demands. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul Monaghan, head of the organisation's social goals, has said: "We are aghast that government accepted the assurances of industry on this while their own consultation had not even finished. There was a shale gas rush in the US and now they are looking into the implications - we need to do it the other way round."

Climate change

Shale gas has been touted as the energy of the future, with potentially huge deposits across the globe that could provide hundreds of years worth of energy. It also means that many nations can become self-sufficient in gas supplies, removing their reliance on countries such as Russia which is a huge exporter of natural gas, shifting political power in the process.

However, shale gas presents two major problems from an ecological perspective in addition to the preceding pollution issues. Firstly, it introduces a new and potentially huge source of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating an already precarious situation with respect to man-made climate change. Secondly, the ready availability of shale gas may be a disincentive to invest in renewable forms of energy.

Shale gas is being hailed as an economically viable new source of energy, but it must not become a replacement for investment in renewable energy sources. Shale gas poses as much (and potentially more) of a problem as oil and coal.

Dr Gary Robertshaw
The Green Providers Directory



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