It’s not that I’m totally against the whole idea of drilling for fossil fuels – I enjoy the advancements of our carbon age as much as anyone – but this mad stampede, this gold rush for unconventional gas seems to me to fly in the face of common sense.
Yes, it would be comforting not to have to rely on Russia or Africa for supplies of natural gas.
Yes, it would be very nice for the government to have a windfall of several million or billion dollars from the oil and gas companies.
But this is unconventional gas. The technology to retrieve it is relatively recent, and whilst there is a good deal of experience at using it the United States, it has not been without its problems. There are complaints of tainted ground water, health problems and environmental damage that have not yet been satisfactorily responded to. Worries are brushed aside with promises of the use of improved techniques. But many countries are beginning to realise that this may not be such a good idea after all.
The process of extraction uses a technique called hydraulic fracturation (fracking), which uses huge quantities of water and sand mixed with a cocktail of proprietary chemicals. Some of the water is recovered, treated and may be re-used for further fracking or perhaps returned to the water supply if it meets the standards required – but much of it will remain underground. No-one really seems to know what will happen in the long term as a result.
The geology of Europe looks promising in many areas for there to be reserves of gas or oil, trapped in the rocks deep underground (shale gas, or gaz de schiste). But the geology of Europe is not that of north America. The scale of operations there is staggering – one of the problems with extracting shale gas is that a single well head does not remain productive for long, and it is necessary to sink more and more wells in close proximity, casting a destructive swathe over the surface.
One may imagine that this may be acceptable to people living in the vast landscape of Texas, used to seeing the detritus of oil wells, but here in Europe countries are smaller, populations denser and attitudes to environmental issues somewhat different.
Demand for energy in Europe has fallen with the recession and together with increased efficiency is already having an impact on reducing carbon emissions. Yes, natural gas has lower emissions of greenhouse gases than coal; but it is still a fossil fuel. This is not the way for the future. We need sustainable and renewable sources to become the major contributors to meet our energy needs. That is where we need investment and new technology to really make an impact.
The over-supply of natural gas in North America has caused a slump in the price of this resource. The economic case in Europe may be hard to make, given the increased demands for environmental protection and repair, combined with the more difficult geology and lack of drilling infrastructure. But this is not dampening the ardour of the aggressive companies who are struggling to be here first in staking their claims.
This mad dash for cash is being driven by greed not need. It is not our insatiable demand for gas that is behind this new wave of exploration. It is the greed of the investors, of the oil companies, of corrupt or misguided politicians. These clandestine arrangements to allow great tracts of land to be earmarked by particular companies for future profit are effectively traded on the stock market in inflated company valuations and takeover bids. These companies are not in it for our benefit, for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. They are not here for the long term. They want to rape and pillage our landscape and make off with the profits.
These precious resources will be gobbled up, wasted in so many ways and once gone, never recovered.
But what of the tortoise and the hare?
Cast your mind forward to maybe 2200 (or 2222 if you like, that has a nice sound to it). Houses are well insulated. Transport is super efficient etc. But industry still needs power, generating stations still need fuel. Sustainable/renewable energy has made good progress, but it still can’t meed all the demands and the price of the vastly diminished reserves of fossil fuels have skyrocketed.
What then, if you were sitting on a nice fat little deposit of natural gas and had sophisticated means of extracting it safely?
Why rush ahead now, when the technology is in its infancy, the problems are not truly resolved, there are many unanswered questions, the economic argument is feeble and the ecological concerns abundant?
Say NO to shale gas.