Why shale gas has a bright future

Tags: Op-ed
Why shale gas has a bright future
FINDING FUEL: This file photo shows a rig drilling for natural gas at a hydraulic fracturing site owned by EQT located atop the Marcellus shale rock formation in Washington Township, Pennsylvania, US
Shale gas is natural gas that is found trapped within shale formations. The gas from shale formations has become an increasingly important source of natural gas in the US since the beginning of this century, and interest has spread to potential gas shales in the rest of the world. For example, in 2000 shale gas provided only 1 per cent of US natural gas production; by 2010, however, it was over 20 per cent and the US government’s energy information administration predicts that by 2035, 46 per cent of the US’s natural gas supply will come from shale gas.

A number of energy analysts expect that shale gas will greatly expand worldwide energy supply. China, our neighbour, is estimated to have the world’s largest shale gas reserves. A study by the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University concluded that increased shale gas production in the US and Canada could help prevent Russia and Persian gulf countries from dictating higher prices for the gas they export to European countries.

It is a fact that the gas is a better alternative to burning coal and the developed countries believe that increased shale gas development will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to estimates, in 2012, the US carbon-dioxide emissions dropped to a 20-year low. Thus, due to shale gas, the human and public health will both benefit by displacing coal burning.

Most recently, shale gas has been shown to hold promise against the use of wind energy at least as far as aesthetics go. According to professor David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the UK department of energy and climate change, a wind farm requires 700 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a fracking site. Thus, a shale gas site uses less land and “creates the least visual intrusion”, compared with a wind farm or solar farm capable of producing the equivalent amount of energy over 25 years.

MacKay rated each technology’s “footprint” against six criteria covering aspects of land use, height, visual impact and truck movements to and from the site. The shale gas site was the “winning” technology on three measures, solar farms won on two, while wind farms did not win any. According to MacKay, a shale gas pad of 10 wells would require just two hectares of land and would be visible — due to an 85-foot-high drilling rig — from 77 hectares of surrounding area. However, the drilling rig would be in place for “only the first few years of operations”. By contrast, a wind farm capable of producing the same energy would span an area of 1,450 hectares, requiring 87 turbines each 328-foot tall. Similarly, a solar farm generating equivalent energy would span a 924 hectare area, directly building on 208 hectares of it.

An estimated 7,800 lorry movements would be required for the wind farm and between 3,800 and 7,600 for the solar farm. In contrast, the fracking site could require the fewest lorry movements, at 2,900, if water is piped to and from the site. However, it could require significantly more than the other technologies — 20,000 trips — if water was transported by truck.

Another aspect to the shale versus wind problem is the tax versus subsidy issue. A shale gas well requires no subsidy, in fact, a person setting it up would need to pay a large tax to the government; whereas, the wind turbines each cost a substantial add-on to one’s electricity bill, part of which goes to the rich landowner whose land they stand on. Wind power costs three times as much as gas-fired power. Make that nine times if the wind farm is offshore. And that’s assuming the cost of decommissioning the wind farm is left to future generations.

Would we run out of the promising shale gas? An estimate from the International Energy Agency suggests that there is a quarter of a millennium’s worth of cheap shale gas in the world. For example, Cuadrilla drilling in the UK revealed a 200 trillion cubic feet reserve, nearly half the size of the giant Marcellus field. This amount of gas is enough to keep the entire British economy going for many decades.

In fact, the impact of shale gas in already being felt in the US. American gas prices are half of what they are in the Europe. In addition, chemical companies, which use gas as a feedstock, are rushing back from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico. Cities are converting their bus fleets to gas. Coal projects are being shelved; nuclear ones abandoned.

Within the US, the real transformation has occurred in Pennsylvania, US. A recent drive around the hills near Pittsburgh reveals new fences, repainted barns and thriving car dealerships and upmarket shops, all because of the recent shale gas reserve hidden in a hollow in the woods that is invisible to the naked eye.

So, what’s the bottom line? That shale gas provides a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels like coal. Also, it does not ruin the aesthetics, as would be the case with the wind and solar farms. Countries with shale reserves are definitely celebrating and for a good reason.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, India)


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