Shale gas is portrayed as being the ‘bridging fuel’ between expensive and dirty coal and oil and the approaching clean energy economy run by a mix of renewable energy, sophisticated grids, and new transport technologies. However, we must ask ourselves – is this bridge really necessary, and how much is it costing the US?
The development of this extraction technology began in 2002, and thanks to generous subsidies now supplies two-thirds of America’s natural gas and half of its oil. What we do not know is the true cost to the government and burden on the national deficit as wells do not recoup the capital invested in them. Many have noted the drop in employment over the past year with admissions by many so-called ‘frackers’ that their businesses are not able to compete with Middle-Eastern supplies in the long term with oil at $50 a barrel. It is unclear who is bearing this burden, and ultimately how much the government may have to bail them out.
What is certain is that the consequences of these drilling operations are unknown. Many argue that the large sums of money going to fracking could be better spent going to renewable energy infrastructure with set costs, no environmental consequences, and no fuel needed.
The problems with fracking are not superficial. First of all, with over 1.7 million wells in operation in the US, and 3 new wells needed per day to keep up with ever-depleting sites, they are now a widespread feature of the American landscape. The EPA rules regarding fracturing and clean water have been abolished, and the chemical makeup of the fracturing fluid has not been disclosed by authorities. Rivers, lakes and livestock have all died instantly when exposed to leaked fracturing fluid, both through the water table and from improperly maintained overground ‘flowback’ sites. It is noted that there is one spill for every 150 wells drilled and fractured, and there are not sufficient regulatory processes in place to maintain the accountability of companies involved in shale gas extraction.
But the fundamental cause for alarm is the lack of information regarding the true extent of methane emissions produced throughout the shale gas lifecycle. Natural gas is 95-98% methane, which is made up of 4 parts hydrogen and one part carbon. That makes it much cleaner when burned, but 86 times more heat-trapping in the environment than CO2, for a period of 20 years; over a period 100 years it is averaged at 35 times the GHG potential. And this is where the crux of the issue lies: if natural gas produces 50% of the emissions of coal, but those 2% fugitive emissions are 86 times more damaging, then the total CO2-equivalent GHG emissions exceed that of coal. Which means that with a poorly regulated industry that is constantly in competition with lower prices, it is not difficult to see how hydraulic fracturing costs more than it might appear.
Below is a graphic under public license created in 2015