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Shale debate needs more light and less heat, says WEC chair

Hwan-eik Cho, chairman of the World Energy Congress 2013, argues that the debate about shale gas is in danger of being derailed by the often emotional rhetoric surrounding the unconventional fuel

The shale gas revolution in the US has captured the imagination of both supporters and opponents. But whatever your view, no one can deny the profound impact that the discovery and production of plentiful new energy sources is making to the US economy and the global energy landscape.

However, in some parts of the world, the debate about unconventional gas is intensifying. In Europe, particularly, divergent views are threatening to derail attempts to agree a better defined framework for the exploration and development of this new energy source.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, environmental concerns are clouding economic aspirations. But they are not mutually exclusive. The sheer scale of this potential resource, and the benefits it could bring to countries still grappling with economic uncertainty, mean that we cannot allow the debate to be deadlocked in disagreement or shut our eyes completely to the potential benefits by banning it altogether.An injection of perspective is needed, with a more balanced view of how to tackle the undoubted energy challenges facing the world today.

Shale reserves

Perhaps the most topical case in point is the UK, where the British Geological Survey has estimated shale gas reserves amounting to 1,329 trillion cubic feet (tcf).Set within the global shale context, the numbers become even more compelling.In June, the US' Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that of the 41 countries it assessed, there are technically recoverable reserves of 7,299 tcf, along with 345 billion barrels of associated shale oil.

Asia's role in the shale boom is becoming much clearer, too. China's potential reserves, estimated at 1,115 tcf by the EIA, have been the subject of great scrutiny, with commentators speculating about the potentially far-reaching impact of exploiting its resources, once the right mechanisms for recovering and commercialising those reserves have been identified.

These shale-gas reserves estimates have raised the debate from local concerns to a more strategic perspective, conducted in parallel with a greater drive for more secure global energy supplies.Whether the US can serve as a model is debatable. The socio-economic infrastructure there makes shale gas a more attractive and readily acceptable proposition to a public that is fossil fuel-friendly. Elsewhere in the world, resistance to fossil fuels is greater and the appetite for alternative energy is more clearly defined. However, I believe that the one major obstacle to a consensus on our energy future is that of perception.Such is the cacophony of competing claims and counter-claims, accusations and rebuttals in the over-heated shale gas debate that any sensible discussion is becoming increasingly difficult.

But wherever these resources lie, there is a much larger question that needs to be addressed. The world is in urgent need of additional energy security, whether from reduced reliance on imports or the identification of new and viable resources.Shale gas meets both these needs, as well as contributing to a lower carbon energy mix more widely. While it cannot alone achieve decarbonisation targets by 2050, this is not a zero-sum game. Each segment of the energy sector has its part to play and it is the integration of all technologies that will determine the success of future development.

It is on this contribution of shale gas to secure supplies that the debate must focus.The emotionally charged arguments are often founded on misperceptions, a lack of understanding and goodwill among supporters and opponents, and the messages are often poorly communicated, confusing and inconsistent.Unconventional gas needs to be placed in the right context, as a fresh energy supply,which, though it may not be the answer in every country, is available in such plentiful quantities that it represents an opportunity we are ill-advised to ignore.

Mixed messages

Opposition can be addressed by establishing a clearly defined framework within which suppliers can work quickly and safely, with the minimum of disruption and maximum benefit to local communities.The absence of objective, verifiable data, compounded by mixed messages about its impact on consumer pricing and energy independence, mean that for the time being that will remain a tough challenge.

Energy security forms a major element of the agenda at this year's World Energy Congress. I encourage the many government ministers and energy leaders coming to Korea in October to cut through the "white noise" to focus on making meaningful progress towards securing our energy future. Shale gas may not be the answer to everyone's prayers. But as we have seen in the US and elsewhere, it has an important role to play in the global energy mix, along with other established and emerging technologies. So let the debate continue, but this time with more light and a little less heat, please.

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