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Natural gas revolution is a safe, abundant force for good

By Peter Voser: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The natural gas revolution is by far the most significant energy development in decades. Thanks to new technology and innovation, today we can affordably tap into vast fields of natural gas embedded in rocks deep in the earth, recovering a resource that just a few years ago was considered out of reach.

But as with the extraction of any natural resource, the opportunities come with challenges. Many in areas where gas is being developed worry modern production techniques will harm their environment and endanger their health. These concerns must be addressed.

The need to develop this abundant resource is clear. Underlying global demand for energy is likely to double or even triple in the first half of this century. The world needs to invest heavily in energy production, both in traditional sources and in renewables.

Natural gas is affordable, clean-burning and benefits the economy. It’s a natural ally to renewables like wind and solar. And its supply is diverse, which enhances energy security.

It is a secure, abundant force for good. But to ensure the world fully realizes these benefits, our industry needs to prove it is up to the task of developing this resource the right way. To be honest, our industry has not always done its best to engage in public debates about these issues. This has resulted in some misconceptions, especially about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

We need to do a better job of listening and responding. To this end, Shell last year announced five operating principles for our onshore tight oil and gas operations. These provide a framework for protecting water, air, wildlife and the communities in which we operate. We are committed to support regulations consistent with these principles. Our hope is they can be applied over time to all tight oil and gas operations around the world.

The fact is, hydraulic fracturing has been performed more than 1.1 million times in the U.S. alone over the past 60 years. Documented instances of freshwater contamination have been extremely rare. When a well is designed and constructed correctly, groundwater will not be contaminated. As an industry, we must insist on strong regulation and enforcement to ensure everyone in the industry does the job right.

We also support President Obama’s call for regulation to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Indeed, we support regulations to promote transparency and public engagement by the tight and shale gas industry in relation to all of its activities.

Another major public concern about hydraulic fracturing is excessive water use. Sound operational practices can keep water consumption to a minimum. We design our operations to reduce the amount of potable water we use. Wherever practical, we use nonpotable water and recycle water from our operations.

Studies done by Harvard and MIT researchers show the water intensity of shale gas ranks among the lowest of all fuel sources. Across the life cycle, shale gas-fired power consumes only half the volume of fresh water per megawatt hour consumed by coal and nuclear.

A third area of concern is greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, from shale gas production. This is an area in which more research is needed to understand the true extent of methane releases from the natural gas industry. To that end, Shell is among operators working with the Environmental Defense Fund to accurately measure methane emissions from natural gas production in the United States.

It’s also important to remember overall greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas-fired power are still only around half of those from coal, across the life cycle from production to use.

The gas revolution offers the world a tremendous opportunity to help meet the growing demand for affordable, cleaner energy in the coming decades. The scale of this opportunity makes it vital that the public discussion and policymaking be based on hard facts and rigorous analysis.

We must ensure the work of each and every operator is done to the highest standards. Our industry needs to listen and respond to public concerns, and become more transparent about our operations. We need to cooperate with government and nongovernmental organizations that have a stake in developing this resource the right way.

Only then will the world fully realize the benefits of natural gas as a secure, abundant force for good.

Voser is CEO of Royal Dutch Shell.


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