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Shale gas: is it as green as the oil companies say?

At the heart of the shale gas ‘sell’ is the industry’s analysis of a European Climate Foundation report – an analysis ECF rejects

Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent: Wednesday 20 April 2011 20.49 BST

A natural gas wellhead near Montrose, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Getty

“You just wouldn’t believe you could get gas out of that, would you?” said Mark Miller, chief executive of UK gas company Cuadrilla Resources, turning over a lump of hard black rock. It is dark, extremely dense and very heavy, with a smooth and almost chalky feel, and is found buried thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth in deposits made 300m years ago.

There are no holes, nothing to betray the fact that this shale rock can be made to yield natural gas in such quantities that it could power the globe for centuries.

Shale is being hailed as the green energy of the future because new technologies can be used to fracture the dense rock and flood it with water to release bubbles of natural gas that can be burned for electricity with – according to the gas industry – only about half of the carbon dioxide emissions of coal.

“This source of gas is revolutionary,” said Malcolm Brinded, foremost expert on the technology at Royal Dutch Shell. “It will reduce dependence on imported oil, and in practice price volatility. There is a huge pace of growth.”

Oil companies are rapidly seizing the opportunity. Within two years, predicts James Smith, outgoing UK chairman of Shell, the company will go from being an oil business to a gas producer. “Estimates show that we could have enough gas to power the world for 200 years,” he said.

But proponents of renewable energy argue that the millions spent on lobbying efforts to rebrand gas as “green” are based on questionable assumptions. They say that the oil industry’s attempt to replace renewable power as the main means to combat climate change could destroy the fledgling green energy industry and thwart attempts to stop global warming.

“Any money and investment that is going to gas is money that is not going to renewables,” said Brook Riley, campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “This is a threat to renewables.”

Gordon Edge, director of policy at Renewable UK, a trade body for wind companies, said: “We must be careful not to lock ourselves into dependence on a finite imported fuel which, while it is less carbon intensive than coal, is nevertheless much more carbon intensive than any renewable.”

Oil companies see gas as a means of recasting themselves as environmentally friendly, with government backing. Newly available forms of gas appear to offer a 50% reduction in carbon emissions compared with electricity generation from coal, meaning most countries could easily meet their 2020 emissions targets – agreed at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference – at a fraction of the expense of investing in wind, solar and renewables.

These assumptions are backed up by an economic analysis commissioned by the European Gas Advocacy Forum (EGAF) based in part on work by McKinsey, a consultancy which found that Europe could save about €900bn by 2050 if it met its emissions targets through investment in gas rather than renewables.

“This report seems to get pulled out at every meeting,” said one European commission insider. “But what they [the lobbyists] do not say is where it came from.”

This EGAF study is now under question by the very people who helped to write it. In its original form, the study found that renewable energy was the best means of meeting Europe’s energy needs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The sources, methodology and conclusions of this original report were made “open source” by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the green thinktank that commissioned the research and provided much of the material.

But these open source calculations were seized on by the gas industry, which commissioned a new report altering the original conclusions to appear to show that gas would be a cheaper and more viable form of energy than renewables.

The ECF says: “We in no way endorse this [EGAF] report. Heavy dependency on gas, as this report seems to suggest, is not a viable alternative to a low-carbon generation network with low dependence on fossil fuels in terms of cost, energy security, or climate resilience

“[This is because] it will make Europe dependent on one potentially cost-volatile solution, and the successful commercialisation of carbon capture and storage at an unrealistically large scale. It also reduces Europe’s energy security [because Europe has few shale gas reserves to exploit, unlike the US and Asia]. These are high-risk strategies indeed.”

Privately, green campaigners and officials in Brussels are furious at EGAF’s actions. “It is outrageous,” said one insider, who cannot be named. “The way in which this has been distorted by the gas industry is unbelievable.”

What is more, the industry’s core assumption that shale gas offers a 50% reduction on burning coal has also been sharply challenged by a new academic study.

Gas, in its pure form, burns in power stations with about half the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal. But if all of the associated emissions of shale gas are taken into account, this benefit disappears, according to a newly published study from Cornell University.

The study, published in the Climatic Change Letters journal, showed that about 4-8% of the methane from shale gas production escaped to the atmosphere via leaks and venting over the lifetime of a well – much more than from conventional gas drilling. As methane is more than 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, shale gas is likely to prove more harmful in climate change terms than even coal, which is usually regarded as the dirtiest fossil fuel. The Cornell study concluded that shale gas used to generate electricity had about the same carbon footprint as coal, or even a slightly higher one, and when used as heating or transport fuel would be no cleaner than diesel.

The authors concluded: “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming.”

Nor does the fuel appear green when the side effects are taken into account, some of which are potentially lethal. From the US, where the fracturing – fracking – of shale rock has been pioneered, come myriad reports of disastrous gas leaks, land contaminated by the chemicals used in extraction, and drinking water rendered unsafe by pollution from the drilling. The film Gasland featured families whose homes were uninhabitable and who were suffering health problems.

Gas advocates, such as Miller of Cuadrilla, argue that the film, and many other similar reports from the US, seized upon examples from a small minority of companies that have cut corners and pursued poor practices. “There are always a few bad apples in any industry,” he said. “But it is possible to do this in a clean, responsible way that does not lead to these kind of problems.” His company, he said, was spending more than the average in order to ensure its sites did not lead to contamination or gas leaks.

Gas companies also seek to reassure governments and green campaigners that their fuel does not compete with renewables, and can even help countries to include more renewables in the energy mix because it provides flexible generation that can be turned off or on quickly to cope with the intermittency of renewable energy. Green campaigners are less optimistic. They believe that pursuing gas – which is artificially cheap outside Europe because its associated emissions are not properly taken into account – will crowd out investment in renewables, until it is too late and the world is committed to a gas-powered future.

The consequences for genuinely green forms of power, such as wind and solar, could be dire. Investment in gas is posited as an alternative to green fuels. In the US, climate change has been chiefly framed as a matter of energy security. Emissions cuts have been promoted as a way of reducing foreign oil dependence so a new domestic fuel source is very attractive.

With shale gas in plentiful supply in the US, the needs of energy security can now be met without the sharp reductions in emissions needed to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. Investment in wind and solar in the US have already been hit hard by a combination of competition from shale gas, recession and weaker government assistance. The number of wind turbines being erected has “fallen off a cliff”, according to General Electric, one of the biggest turbine manufacturers.

“In the US, it’s as if they do not have to do anything about climate change because they say ‘we have shale gas’,” said Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate chief, of her recent visit to the US. “But you have to have climate change as part of the equation … and avoid the lock-in to fossil fuels.”

That is another key point: The development of a new generation of gas-fired power stations threatens to perpetuate a long-term future of fossil fuel energy generation. Switching from coal-fired power stations to gas produces sizeable short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as the UK proved through its “dash for gas” in the 1980s and 1990s. But after the initial gains – and unlike renewable energy sources – gas-fired power stations carry on producing carbon emissions for decades. The life of a plant can stretchfrom 25 to 40 years, with the right maintenance

If a new fleet of gas-fired power stations built in the next 10 years are still producing emissions in 2050, it will be impossible for the world to halve emissions by 2050, as scientists say we must.

For this reason, EGAF’s analysis assumes all gas-fired power stations will use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology from 2030, reducing their emissions to nearly zero.

But the technology has never been used at a commercial scale. Pilot projects cost about £2bn each, running costs are unknown, and there are likely to be severe limitations to where carbon dioxide can safely be stored underground. Using the technology also reduces the amount of energy a power plant can produce.

EGAF assumes that CCS will become “economically viable” in the mid-2020s, but if these complex estimates are even slightly inaccurate, and the technology is more expensive than forecast, by then it would be too late for the renewable industry.

Prof Howarth, lead author of the Cornell study, added: “Carbon storage remains an idea that has little real-world testing. To the extent it has been tested, problems have clearly surfaced, such as leakage of carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere, and water pollution from the materials extracted from the storage due to the highly corrosive, high acidity of the storage material. It remains to be seen whether the technology can be developed in a safe, environmentally responsible way. It also remains to be seen how much this will cost.”

If CCS does not come through as EGAF predicts, then the value of shale gas in the fight against climate change becomes highly questionable.

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