To listen to its advocates, there is little shale gas won’t do: bring down energy prices, cut carbon emissions, support renewables and bring us out of recession.
The “climate-sceptic” Global Warming Policy Foundation even claimed that “because of shale gas, wealth and health will be distributed more equitably over the planet”.
Add to this newspaper stories with misunderstood numbers saying that there is enough shale gas to heat British homes for 1500 years and you can see why some people are getting excited.
In Britain, the initial activity has been in Lancashire, where test drilling in 2011 caused earthquakes that led to a de facto moratorium on fracking. Energy secretary Ed Davey lifted this ban in December last year and interest is now on the rise again.
Many areas are already covered by licences giving companies the first option on oil and gas exploration. A few companies have planning permission for test drilling.
Among the areas being eyed up in this current round are Lancashire, Sussex, Kent, South Wales and the East Midlands. The government is planning more licensing, potentially opening up more areas for drilling.
Do the claims made for shale gas stand up to scrutiny? Green groups and local community organisations think not.
Fracking is rightly a controversial technology. In conventional gas production, the gas flows freely up a well. Shale gas is held within shale rocks thousands of feet underground, which have to be fractured (or “fracked”) to allow the gas to flow.
This is done by pumping millions of gallons of water ― mixed with potentially toxic chemicals to help the gas flow more freely ― down the well at extremely high pressure. Only maybe half of this water comes back to the surface ― the rest remains underground.
It’s an experiment with the local environment. The European Commission has said the cumulative impacts of fracking at several sites pose high risks of problems for water resources, water contamination and air pollution.
There is clear evidence of problems in the US: water supplies contaminated by fracking chemicals and by the gas itself, increased air pollution, communities blighted by traffic.
Nor will shale gas help to tackle climate change. The industry says Britain should go for shale gas as a “companion fuel” for renewables as it’s a “clean” fossil fuel. But tackling climate change means getting off the fossil fuel hook as quickly as possible and exploiting Britain's abundant potential for renewables ― wind, wave and solar.
Shale gas will be a dangerous distraction and could hit investment in real low-carbon solutions.
Globally, exploiting shale gas reserves could be disastrous. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) so-called “golden age of gas” scenario, with use of unconventional gas such as shale tripling by 2035, would set us on course for a global temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius ― well above the threshold for triggering catastrophic climate change.
The IEA did admit that a golden age of gas might not be a golden age for humanity.
Bills are the public’s top current concern about energy. Chancellor George Osborne points to the US where natural gas prices fell as a result of fracking and says he does not want Britain to be left behind.
Would shale gas deliver lower gas prices in Brtain? At best it seems unlikely.
Operating costs in Europe could be 30-50% higher than in the US as a result of factors such as higher population density. Claims of cheaper gas prices ignore fast rising global demand for gas, particularly from China and India.
The US shale gas industry is looking to expand internationally, with Europe a key focus. But it is meeting strong resistance. France and Bulgaria have banned the technology, following grassroots protests.
Many other countries are concerned about the environmental impacts and want to know more before making any firm decisions.
US President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his support for shale gas as a way of promoting US energy independence. And the planned free-trade agreement between the US and the EU is a real concern, with the EU possibly having to accept US environmental standards on issues such as GMOs and fracking.
This is particularly worrying as fracking is excluded from some key US federal environmental regulations, thanks to ex-vice president Dick Cheney ― a former CEO of Halliburton, one of the leading fracking companies.
Fracking could be an electoral liability for the government in key constituencies. Seven of Labour’s target Tory seats are in Lancashire, and fracking in the south east could cause uproar in the Tory heartlands.
Not that Labour can claim a clearly better policy. It supports tougher environmental regulation, but concerns about climate change don’t seem to feature highly with regard to shale gas.
The message from green groups is simple: we should leave the shale gas in the ground.
[Abridged from Red Pepper.]