In an unfortunate choice of title, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has weighed in on the fight over fracking with its report, Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas. A “golden age” is one, either imagined or real, where peace, prosperity and happiness prevail. We should always remember that gas is a carbon-based fossil fuel that releases greenhouse gases (GHG), in significant quantities, and contributes to global climate change. More gas, more GHG – not exactly a vision for a golden age. We should also remember that prosperity and happiness are terrific, but not at the price of a scorched earth.
While the title sets up expectations of a rosy view of fracking, the IEA insists that any increased reliance on exploitation of “unconventional” gas, including shale gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, must come with a price — its Golden Rules. Those Rules require regulatory and protective actions by governments, and industry, to reduce the risks from fracking and, equally important, to assuage the public concerns about the risks from fracking. The IEA makes the argument that unless governments and industry make meaningful efforts to implement a full compliment of regulatory protections, including enforcement, the public concerns may well derail this Golden Age, as has already happened in France, Vermont and, at least for the moment, New York. At one point it argues that “there needs to be strict enforcement and penalties in the case of non-compliance, ultimately including loss of the licence to operate.” At 48.
Its argument is, at critical times, undermined by its own words.
The IEA paints a glowing picture of the world of energy with unconventional gas playing an enhanced, even very significant, role in providing greater energy diversity and more secure supply in countries that rely on imports to meet gas needs, including the United States and China. There will be global benefits in the form of reduced energy costs, because of this expanded supply of gas, and benefits in the reliance on unconventional gas from countries spread across the globe rather than concentrated in areas subject to political turmoil.
If unconventional gas can be tapped as expected, natural gas could account for 25% of global energy by 2035, becoming the second largest energy source after oil and overtaking coal in the process.
But the IEA ads a very large “if.” The IEA points to a large, and growing, opposition to fracking across the globe, based on real environmental and social concerns, and argues that unless people are persuaded that fracking for unconventional gas poses little risk, and many benefits, then fracking will not be accepted and the role of gas will be much reduced in the world’s energy mix.
The IEA concludes that producing unconventional gas, by fracking and other methods, can be done in such a way as to avoid the environmental risks and to satisfy concerns of the public. But for this to happen, the IEA offers its Golden Rules that, in its view, must be followed by government and industry.
The Environmental Risks
The IEA revisits the numerous environmental risks from fracking, and other means of producing unconventional gas, all of which have been widely covered. See, for example, coverage of fracking, and its risks, in previous issues of irish environment, including “The Irish EPA Preliminary Assessment of Fracking: A Good Start but a Long Way to Go” (June 2012); “New York Plans to Frack, The Public Reacts: Implications for Fracking on the Island of Ireland” (May 2012); “Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC” (January 2012).
Some of the risks receive particular attention. Shale gas exploration and production requires more wells than necessary for an equivalent volume of conventional gas, resulting in more intensive industrial operation, and more water, between 1 and 5 million gallons per well, with potential depletion of freshwater sources. There is a greater use of energy, with increased GHG emissions, and large numbers of trucks to deliver equipment, water, chemicals, and possibly to transport wastewater. Drilling takes place 24 hours a day, with considerable noise and fumes, and can last for days or months, for each well. Methane gas is sometimes vented or burned, releasing GHG emissions. Of the fluids used for the fracking operation, including the chemical additives, 20 – 50% are returned to the surface, the rest remaining in the subsurface.
Having outlined the various risks, the IEA ads that, “Means are available to address these concerns.” At 17. The means require that policy-makers must “ensure that effective and balanced regulation is in place, based on sound science and high-quality data, and that adequate resources are available for enforcement.” Whether these conditions exist, or can be constructed, on the island of Ireland remains to be seen, especially with regard to enforcement.
The Golden Rules
Underlining the specific Golden Rules is the need for full transparency, measuring and monitoring the environmental impacts, and engaging at all stages of the process with local communities. Applying these Rules will add an additional cost of 7% for each typical shale-gas well, an increase that the IEA believes is not an undue burden on the gas companies.
Here are the seven basic Rules:
• Measure, disclose and engage – measuring and disclosure applies to all water use (and baseline groundwater quality), chemical additives, waste water, methane GHGs; disclosing requires what is measured is provided to others; the engagement is with the local community, residents and stakeholders and is required throughout the process.
• Watch where you drill – minimize impacts on local community, heritage, existing land use, and ecology; survey sites for existing fractures and faults; monitor hydraulic fractures; consider access roads, water availability and disposal options.
• Isolate wells and prevent leaks – strict regulations on design and construction of well casings, especially to keep them isolated from drinking water sources; prevention measures to avoid surface spills and leaks and control over waste fluids and solids.
• Treat water responsibly – minimize water usage to reduce burden on local water resources; dispose of wastewater safely; minimize use of chemical additives.
• Eliminate venting, minimize flaring and other emissions – minimize venting and flaring of gas and air pollution and “seek to reduce” GHG emissions during entire life of well, including using electric vehicles rather than diesel.
• Be ready to think big – realize economies of scale to reduce impacts (build pipeline for delivering water rather than relying on trucks) and account for cumulative affects of multiple wells on water use and disposal, land use, air quality, traffic and noise.
• Ensure a consistently high level of environmental performance – commit resources and political support for “robust regulatory regimes” with sufficient staff to permit and enforce compliance and with reliable information for the public; develop emergency response plans; “recognize the case for” independent evaluation and verification of environmental performance
While many of the Rules make sense and are reasonable requirements for the fossil fuel industry, others do undermine the IEA’s position. A Golden Rule that calls for industry to “seek to reduce” GHG emissions is exhortatory, not enforceable, and is therefore feckless. Another Rule that tells the fossil fuel industry that they should “think big” is unlikely to assuage the community. Another Rule that urges someone, presumably industry, to “recognize the case” for evaluation and verification is hardly useful. Why not simply require independent evaluation and verification?
The US and China would be the big winners in this Golden gas Age, along with Canada, India, Australia and Indonesia. Russia and Middle East countries would experience declines in their share of the energy market. For the members of the EU, the benefits are less marked and it is estimated that unconventional gas production would only offset the decline in conventional energy sources, although Poland would benefit more than most other EU countries because of its large supply of gas. But see the recent report that ExxonMobil has withdrawn from Poland because the gas supply is limited or too expensive to extract.
Greater reliance on natural gas in its Golden Age scenario will not help reach the international goals for limiting global climate change, as the IEA accepts. Only less reliance on low-carbon energy sources, greater energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, will assist in that struggle. And in assessing the greater contribution of natural gas to energy diversity and security, the IEA assumes “that existing policies and support mechanisms remain in place as part of the efforts by governments to address the threat of a changing climate.” At 80. Good luck to us all for ever dealing with climate change as we expand yet another source of carbon emissions.
The IEA also acknowledges that a world with an expanded natural gas supply may create problems for development of renewable (non-carbon) energy sources. More natural gas may well diminish government efforts to support low and zero-carbon energy sources; cheap gas makes renewables less competitive without subsidies, which are being phased out in many economies. On a slightly brighter note for renewables, according to the IEA, gas-fired power can help back-up the variable output from renewables and lower electricity prices, based on use of natural gas, may encourage greater acceptance of electricity from renewables. In a not very convincing ending to this discussion, the IEA states that whether renewables “retain their appeal … will depend on the resolve of governments.” Most of us will flinch at any plan that depends on the resolve of governments.
In earlier issues of irish environment, we described many of the risks associated with fracking in general and some concerns for specific conditions in Ireland that complicate fracking. The issues surrounding fracking in Ireland include: to what extent methane releases from fracking will compound methane releases from agriculture; to what extent fracking threatens the drinking water supplies for the Greater Dublin area as well as areas close to the fracking site; to what extent the need for substantial water supplies for fracking will compete with other users of what will be an increasingly more limited supply.
The IEA report adds substance to the conversation on fracking but it does not address issues specific to Ireland. Indeed in all its discussion of the possibilities and controls over fracking in various countries, Ireland is not mentioned, suggesting that shale gas extraction in Ireland is a very minor opportunity. So the question remains, if unconventional, shale gas extraction in Ireland is minimal, is it worth the risks associated with it. That remains the question for the communities that will be affected by fracking, north and south, and the governments in both jurisdictions.
International Energy Agency, Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas: World Energy Outlook Special Report on Unconventional Gas iea.org/newsroomandevents/pressreleases/2012/may/name,27266,en.html
“Plans for shale gas boom suffer setback in Poland,” Irish Times, see News section of irish environment (June 20, 2012)
See, also, “Unconventional Gas” in the iePEDIA section of the current issue of irish environment.