Within a few years unconventional gas, in particular shale gas, discoveries in the USA, have changed the geopolitics of energy.
The USA is becoming one the major gas producers on earth, shaking off its dependence on the unstable Gulf region.
Gas prices have dramatically gone down in the USA, enabling the country to re-vitalise energy-intensive industries and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the States of the Middle West.
Throughout the world oil and gas companies are taking claims for potential reserves, from UK to Poland, China and Australia.
Unconventional gas deposits are widely spread around the globe, reducing the fears about excessive dependence on the Middle East, Russia or Central Asia for future oil and gas supply.
Reserves of conventional and unconventional gas that are technically recoverable might last 250 years on the basis of present gas consumption (IEA), which would turn gas into a fossil energy with very long life-expectancy, comparable to coal, revolutionising the long-term energy outlook. Gas might supply one quarter of global primary energy needs by 2025 and 40 per cent by 2040!
These prospects are bound to have a climate bearing, as green house gas emissions from gas are only two thirds of those from oil and less than half of those from coal.
The significant decline of US emissions since 2005, the first ever registered, is largely due to the switch from coal to gas in power generation.
Sooner or later governments and international oil/gas business will follow the American example and invest massively in unconventional gas, replacing coal as the major input for electricity generation.
Humanity might thus buy a respite of several decades in the fight against climate change. Gas, whatever its form, will be a cheap and convenient alternative to wind, solar and bio-fuels, difficult to resist.
Of course, unconventional gas is no miracle solution
- It is fossil energy emitting green house gas, even if emissions are relatively lower than from competing fossil sources, though higher than from conventional gas, due to its higher methane content.
- It requires large quantities of water, blended with chemicals, for fracturing gas-bearing rocks. Arid or densely populated regions are therefore not suitable for production of unconventional gas. The risk of water contamination can, however, be resolved by appropriate technologies; The volume of water consumption should not be exaggerated either. According to UK estimates, it represents no more than 10 per cent of water losses from pipe leakages.
- Last not least, it is more expensive than conventional natural gas. But with rising energy prices this will matter and less.
Several European countries – Poland, UK, France, Germany and Italy- hold large quantities of unconventional gas. European gas reserves are estimated to increase 1000 fold! EU dependence on Russian gas imports might dramatically decrease.
Public opposition against exploration and production remains strong and has led the French government to decree a moratoium. But UK and Poland are actively preparing for the new era.
The EU has so far abstained from taking a clear position on how to deal with unconventional gas.
Potential producers will, of course, have to comply with EU and national environmental regulations on water, noise etc.
Lacking the free space of the USA on-shore production will also be limited to areas with low population density.
Whatever individual member states may decide, the U should not be deceived by exuberant expectations and proceed guardedly. There is no need to rush, let alone panic because of excessively low gas prices in the USA, which will be a temporary phenomenon.
For Humanity, the biggest challenge will be excessive complacency and ignoring climate change over the relief of disposing a new source of low emission fossil fuel.
Resorting to unconventional gas is fine as long as we use it as a “bridge fuel” to a low a emission global energy system which must remain the overriding objective.
Reducing energy consumption through higher efficiency and promoting wind and solar energy should therefore enjoy priority over a reckless expansion of unconventional gas production.
Eberhard Rhein, Brussels