The International Energy Agency [IEA] recently reported that global exploitation of shale gas reserves could transform the world’s energy supply by lowering prices, improving security and curbing carbon dioxide emissions, but the industry might be stopped in its tracks if it doesn’t work harder to resolve environmental concerns.
Shale gas has only recently become a major energy source as a process called hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from impermeable rock, has become more widespread.
The shale gas revolution, which cut the price of natural gas by about 45% over the past year, has already triggered a shift by the utility industry to natural gas from coal. Vast amounts of natural gas in shale rock formations have been unlocked by improved drilling techniques, making the fuel cheap and plentiful across the U.S.
Now the shale-gas boom is rippling through the transportation industry. Never before has the price gap between natural gas and diesel been so large, suddenly making natural-gas-powered trucks an alluring option for company fleets. Many fleet operators, particularly long-distance hauliers, remain concerned about a scarcity of refueling stations. Other challenges include the bulky tanks for compressed gas and the hazards of handling liquefied gas. In the past, the volatility of natural-gas prices also hampered wider use.
But opposition is significant, particularly in Europe, from groups concerned about the risks of water contamination, earth tremors or the release of greenhouse gases.
Hydraulic fracturing has been banned in France and Bulgaria and temporarily halted in the U.K.
If the social and environmental impacts aren’t addressed properly, there is a very real possibility that public opposition will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks.
The IEA is urging the industry to win public support by following a set of “golden rules,” including the careful choice of drilling sites to avoid earth tremors, using the highest standards of well design to avoid groundwater contamination, properly disposing of waste water and eliminating emissions of polluting gases from the well head.
Natural gas could be by far the fastest growing fuel, with consumption increasing by 50% to overtake coal as the second largest source of energy by 2035.