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Shale gas: from hero to villain

The shale-gas industry must fight back against media misinformation if the public are to accept the potentially huge benefits of fracking

Shale gas has transformed the US’ energy supply mix, but environmental concerns over hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have demonised the fuel, a leading industry expert claimed.

Sidney Green, who works for the Schlumberger Innovation Centre and lectures at Utah University, told PEU that shale gas’s reputation has deteriorated in recent years – the fuel, first lauded as a reliable source of new energy, is now seen as an environmental demon.

“Just a year ago, shale gas was providing so much gas in North America that people were very excited that we could see a way to cut our dependence on coal and reduce our environmental footprint,” Green said. “But because of environmental issues associated with fracking, it’s turned into more of a demon than a hero.”

The US shale-gas revolution, which has delivered technology in the past decade allowing operators to extract natural gas from virtually impermeable rock, has all but halted North America’s need to import liquefied natural gas. Shale-gas production now makes up 17% of the US' total natural gas output, a figure that will rise to 35% by 2020, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

Burgeoning production has also flattened gas prices for consumers, while emissions from coal-fired electricity generation, the biggest source of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the US, could be wiped out by switching from coal to gas-fired power.

Overshadowed by concerns

But the economic and GHG-reduction benefits shale-gas production has brought to the US have been overshadowed by concerns that the industry’s extraction processes are damaging the environment.

Opposition to shale-gas development in the US has arisen from concerns over three main aspects of production. The number of vehicles used in transporting the large amount of equipment used is the first: Green said US shale-gas operations “are often so big it creates commotion” in local communities.

Another much-publicised criticism is the idea that the production process can contaminate ground water. The film Gasland, released in Europe earlier this year, featured methane-contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania. The film’s director, Josh Fox, suggested this contamination was a result of fracking nearby.

Green disputes this. “Gasland kept talking about fracking and then showing polluted water,” he said. “By association there was suggestion that fracking was doing it when it really wasn’t.” The industry feels “very comfortable” that fracking does not contaminate ground water, but he admits spillages of fracking fluids from careless operators can pollute shallow water.

Fox’s film relied mainly on anecdotal evidence, but Gasland’s Oscar nomination should tell the industry that winning support for shale-gas production outside the US will be no easy feat.

Green blames the media for cultivating a damaging image of the industry, suggesting it criticises the sector because “the profits are high and there’s a general grumping about the carbon footprint”.

A third contentious issue is air pollution caused by the equipment used in shale-gas extraction and the hundreds of trucks used to transport it from well site to well site. “Until we improve efficiency we’re probably stuck with a lot of big trucks and lots of equipment,” he said. “If you allow fumes to escape you pollute the air. It’s not rocket science – the environmental issues are common sense.”

Hold your hands up

Green said some of the fault for the deterioration in the public perception of shale gas also lies with the industry. Companies must make more of an effort to explain the development process to the public and to lessen the industry’s environmental impact through improved technology.

He said: “The industry clearly got ahead of the public and they didn’t understand what was going on. The industry probably wasn’t policing itself enough; particularly, some of the upcoming producers didn’t have in place some of the environmental controls that the larger companies would have.”

But Green is confident that rapidly advancing technology will be developed to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

“There are billions of dollars being spent in understanding this phenomena,” he said. “I have no doubt that over the next decade we’ll have great improvements in efficiencies.”

Unlike conventional gas production, oilfield service companies and shale-gas producers have a vested interest in sharing technology to improve efficiencies in production and the industry’s environmental impact, Green said.

Address the water issue

The easiest environmental issue to address is water wastage. About 90% of water used in fracking is lost and in areas where water is scarce – such as in South Africa’s Karoo basin, where Shell is hoping to explore for shale gas – this will be an issue. Most of the flow-back water that can be recovered can be recycled and used in other wells. However, this is a relatively small amount of water compared with the millions of litres pumped into the ground during fracking.

Green said that if operators can find a way to reduce the amount of water they use in fracking this would be “a tremendous step forward” for the environment and the industry’s image.

And for countries hoping to develop a shale-gas industry, such as Poland, learning from US’ mistakes regarding environmental protection could prove advantageous. “There’s a bit of a silver lining to the US cloud in the sense that it’s causing countries like Poland to be much more cautious early on,” said Green. “We’re seeing much more attention paid to the environmental impact of shale-gas drilling.”

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