Shale gas has lost its lustre

Resitance is growing in the US. Here, at a protest site in Riverdale, Utah. Photo: Public Herald cc by-nc-nd

The “Golden Age” of shale gas, heralded by the International Energy Agency (IEA) a year ago, may not arrive after all, at least not in Europe. The promises of plenty, soon and cheap are not materialising.

When Acid News wrote about shale gas a year ago (AN 2/2012), there was a certain triumphalism among frackers, and their standard-bearer, the IEA. The message was that the success of unconventional gas in the United States could and should be replicated in much of the rest of the world, especially Europe.

The outcome is not so clear-cut. The war has just begun and both sides have scored some battle victories.

The frackers, i.e. the exploiters of and proponents for unconventional gas (see Box) have won some ground.

The EU Parliament voted down a moratorium on fracking in November 2012 with a very large majority.

The UK government lifted its moratorium on fracking in December 2012, and has since moved to a strong pro-shale position. In July it outlined tax breaks for fracking. The plans would make the UK the “most generous” regime for shale gas in the world, according to the government .

“Fracking has become a national debate in Britain – and it’s one that I’m determined to win,” wrote Prime Minister David Cameron in the Telegraph in September. The energy and climate secretary Ed Davey then claimed that fracking will not add to climate change. This was simultaneously more or less contradicted by a report from his own chief scientist, David Mackay .

The national debate has centred around an  exploration project in Sussex, south England, where road blocks and other civil disobedience action, followed by police arrests, were very successful in getting attention. The explorer, Cuadrilla Resources, backed down there in August, but several other projects are progressing.

Public opinion is evenly divided; 40 per cent would support it in their local area and 40 per cent would oppose it, an ICM poll found in August. When asked if it should take place in the UK, 44 per cent of respondents said yes, with 30 per cent saying no and 26 per cent undecided.

The local Labour party has supported the Sussex protestors, whereas the central Labour party (the main opposition nationally, but not strong in southern England) has so far not taken a stand.

The political dynamics are unpredictable. Meanwhile, the British Geological Survey recently estimated there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present in the north of England – double the previous estimates.

From the EU there are mixed signals. The EU commissioners say different things.

The EU Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, told Germany in April that it would be unwise to say no to shale.

In May the EU Environment Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, expressed caution at a meeting in Poland. His reservation was not only on environmental grounds, but also based on energy strategy:

“Even in the most optimistic case, European shale gas development can only compensate for the decline in conventional gas production,” he said. “This would basically help maintaining the current level of EU import dependency to 60 per cent.”

That is a far cry from the high hopes of yesteryear, that shale gas would rid Europe of dependence on Russia and OPEC.

The Polish shale energy resource has been downgraded by a factor of 10, notes Antoine Simon, campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE). The early estimates said the gas would supply Poland with energy for 300 years.

Now it is more like 30–35 years and that is “resources”, he says to Acid News.

The “reserves”, the technically and economically recoverable shale, are much less.

Exxon Mobile, Talisman Energy and Marathon Oil have all left Poland. One test well  in northern Poland extracts some 5000 cubic metres of gas per day, which made Foreign minister Sikorski exclaim that “Polish shale gas is already out”. This is not really the case; it means less than four megawatts of gas.

The UK is the only other EU nation where fracking actually goes on, but with growing resistance from grassroots and a clear lack of enthusiasm from some large corporations.

Shell has declared that it has no plans to go into shale in the UK. BP’s chief economist, Christof Rühl, foresees “extremely limited growth” for it before 2030 .

Similar disenchantment is voiced by the big consultancies. “Poland is not Texas”, said an IHS consultant to the New York Times.

One of the reasons why fracking will be more difficult here in Europe is the political risk. Only a few European nations have bans or moratoria, such as France, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands. But there could be more, particularly at the subnational level, as has already happened in Hessen and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and Cantabria in Spain.

The infrastructure and workforce that is already in place in the US will take a long time to develop here.

Even the US success story is not as clear-cut as it seemed. Natural gas prices fell, but have risen again over the past year, notes Antoine Simon.

He doubts that shale gas is cheap, and points to a German study that claims natural gas prices have to go up, not down to make shale gas economic.

The most important goal for Simon and FoEE is an inclusion of all fracking activities in the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. It should supply baseline data, so a causal link can be established for pollution.

This is in fact not evident at all. Even the famous tap water on fire  in a fracked area in the US movie Gasland has been contested on the ground that such things have happened before fracking!

A mandatory impact assessment also gives NGOs a right to participation.

Amendments  to the directive in these respects will be voted upon  in the EU Parliament, on October 1.

As for now, whether fracking projects need EIA is essentially up to the member states.

In Poland, which according to Simon, “wants fracking at any cost”, requirements for EIA are minimal.

While the wider public was either sympathetic or apathetic to fracking a couple of years ago, the issue is now also high-profile in the US, and resistance is growing.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo has found one excuse after another not to make a decision about fracking in the state, which has a de facto moratorium. Two and a half years have passed. Opinion polls show that more New Yorkers are against than for it. A large number of municipalities have decided on bans or moratoria. The gas industry contested their right to decide, but it has been sustained in court.

Efforts by the gas industry to portray their opponents as NIMBYists (Not In MY Back Yard) seem to have backfired. It is true that much of the anti-fracking grassroots campaign is locally based, but wider issues are certainly addressed by the NGOs. The strong commitment of a large showing of artists and celebrities has helped.

Even if some of the rhymes are open to criticism, Sean Lennon’s song “Don’t frack my mother” (with Yoko Ono joining in “Don’t frack me”) makes a pretty clear statement in that respect:

“We can’t afford for this world to get hotter
We can’t afford polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in our water.”

The song and video are on YouTube.

The campaigners, for example New Yorkers Against Fracking, focus both on local pollution and on wider issues, such as renewable energy and conservation against fossil energy and global warming.

This is an important point. It cannot be denied that less coal and more natural gas are factors behind lower energy prices, decreasing foreign dependence and tumbling CO2 emissions in the US. But this is just part of the story. Other factors are that Americans are buying much more efficient cars, using electricity much more efficiently and that wind power supplied 140 TWh of electricity in 2012. President Obama noted all these factors in his state-of-the-union speech:

“We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas… Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – let’s drive down costs even further.”

Some of the factors that are driving down CO2 emissions in the US are at work in Europe too. Electricity consumption is falling not only because of the slump, but also because of increased efficiency. The Eco-design directive is producing tangible results: practically any new TV, fridge, lamp, razor, computer, etc., will use less electricity than the one it replaces, and you can notice that it, or the charger, does not get as warm. And while Europe used more coal and less gas in 2012 than in 2011, this does not amount to a trend. More wind, more solar and better efficiency are part of a trend, all over the world. As it costs next to nothing to use wind and solar once they are there, they are gradually ousting gas, coal and nuclear power.

This does not mean that fracking is not a threat to the climate. It clearly is. The IEA says the Golden Age case puts CO2 emissions “on a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target” .

Time, however is not on the side of the frackers. Every day of indecision, in New York state, and elsewhere, makes the Golden Age less likely.

Fredrik Lundberg

Unconventional gas and oil

Shale gas, and sometimes associated oil, is trapped in dense rock, which has to be fractured by water (with additives) under high pressure. Horizontal drilling is also needed to crack up the rock from many points.

Tight oil is essentially the same thing as shale gas, but oil is the main object. Of great importance in the US.

Coalbed methane also often needs fracturing to be released.
Underground coal gasification means partial combustion of coal seams that are not economic to mine.

Oil sand (tar sand) oil is released with steam. This is done on a large scale in West Canada. The planned  Keystone XL pipeline, if permitted and built will transport this oil across the US to refineries in Texas.

Oil shale can produce oil when heated, or be combusted as it is to produce power. Large resource, but for economical and environmental reasons not much used except in Estonia.

The unconventionals have one thing in common: they add to the resources, and, all other things being equal, add to the CO2 emissions.

In april 2013 three well-known Dutch breweries announced they were against fracking, for which large amounts of water and chemicals are pumped into the ground, as it may contaminate the water, the most important ingredient of beer. Photo: Mark von Minden adapted by glotzbach cc by-nc-sa

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