Rhein on Energy and Climate

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

Author :



    Mr. Rhein is muddying the energy policy debate by conflating all types of unconventional gas with shale gas. Shales gas is a fossil carbon fuel, but not all forms of unconventional gas come from fossil sources.

    Synthetic methane can be produced from any carbonaceous fuel, either biogenic or fossil, or a mixture of both. By using mixed biogenic and fossil carbon fuels, and CCS, it is possible to produce large quantities of low cost synthetic methane with emissions intensity varying between low and negative according to the exact fuel mix. The sequestered proportion of the total biogenic carbon throughput offsets the fossil carbon emissions at the final point of use of the synthetic methane. In USA, this concept is called “carbon neutral SNG”. All the technologies to deliver carbon neutral SNG exist, and are well-developed.

    The question is: Is it economically viable to produce low carbon SNG at a price which is competitive with the potential long-term price of fossil Natural Gas and shale gas in EU, without requiring market distorting subsidies? In short the answer is “yes” for reasons set out below.

    Commercial scale mixed hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, biomass and coal co-gasification has already been successfully demonstrated in EU. The low cost of residual waste (ie after reduction, recycling and re-use), which is a sustainable fuel, offset the cost of biomass and coal, leading to low input fuel price.

    British Gas Corporation developed the World’s highest efficiency inherently carbon capture ready high pressure coal to synthetic methane technology during the period 1955 to 1992, when the programme was mothballed. Using mixed wastes, biomass and coal, 70 bar gasification pressure, and integrated HICOM combined shift and methanation with patented Timmins CCS CO2 recycle loop, produces low cost carbon neutral synthetic methane at 76.75% net efficiency. PIpeline ready SNG is produced at 60 bar, and high purity supercritical CO2 is produced at 150 bar, ready for CCS.

    The economics are outstanding:

    Cost of carbon neutral SNG: 40 to 45 p/therm.
    Cost of CO2: 40 p/tonne injected into a CCS pipeline.
    CCS transport and storage costs per unit energy approx 33% cost of fossil fuel power generation.

    Emission reduction is also outstanding:

    Using a ‘live’ site fuel mix, we have obtained the following negative emissions intensity, assuming SNG is burnt in a current state of the art CCGT: -45gCO2/kWh.

    Shale gas may indeed only be a ‘bridging’ fuel, but unconventional gases of all kinds will assuredly have a long-term future in a carbon constrained world. This has little to do with wishful thinking, and a lot to do with the basic physics and chemistry of CCS. IEA, IPPC, UK CCSA and Schlumberger Business School have all recently stated that the cost of CCS is dependent on the CO2 partial pressure at the point of gas separation.

    In a 60 to 70 bar SNG plant, with CO2 separation after methanation, (for the same unit energy process input) the gas volume flow rate is 400 times less, and the CO2 partial pressure 250 times greater, than in post combustion CCS on a fossil fuel power station. This massive physical and chemical difference gives CCS on SNG making a massive cost advantage compared with thermal power stations, and accounts for the Marginal Abatement Cost of Carbon being 2 orders of magnitude less than for a fossil fuel power station.

    Best wishes,

    Tony Day

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