Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shale gas - Transitional energy option?

The popularity of coal is rapidly declining in United States, and the main reason for this latest trend has been natural gas, or to be more precise recent shale gas discoveries that have driven down natural gas prices. And although United States is now burning less coal due to increased shale gas production, millions of tonnes of unused coal are still being exported to other areas of the world, most notably Europe and Asia. As a result of this, the greenhouse gas emissions benefits of switching fuel from coal to natural gas are significantly overstated.
North American Shale Gas. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration based on data from various published studies.

There have been many governmental reports saying that the U.S. CO2 emissions from domestic energy sources have dropped by 8.6% since a peak in 2005, which is the equivalent of 1.4% per year. Though this is no doubt a positive from environmental point of view we still must not ignore the fact that more than half of the recent greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the domestic energy sector have in fact being displaced overseas by the trade in coal, meaning that the global environmental impact may not be as positive as some have expected or hoped it would be.

The various studies as well as different scientific reports have been primarily focusing on the relative emissions from coal and gas, which does not tell us the global picture. Also, many people seem to have forgotten that shale gas is still a carbon intensive energy source, meaning that renewable energy sources still remain the best possible energy option to improve environmental condition of our planet.

Some environmentalists even fear that the growing popularity of shale gas could lead our entire society into a high-carbon future, and seriously delay our current renewable energy development. These fears seems to be justified up to a certain point because the role of shale gas in a low carbon transition is extremely limited, in fact shale gas could potentially be diverting substantial funds away from genuinely low and zero carbon alternatives, such as solar and wind energy.

The proponents of shale gas have always claimed that it is a lower carbon alternative to coal, and this is true only up to a certain point, namely if the coal is not just burnt somewhere else via its export to other countries. What this means is that without a cap on global carbon emissions, shale gas is burnt in addition to other fossil fuels, leading to further increase in global carbon emissions and increasing global impact of climate change.

Shale gas should be really considered as a purely transitional option to replace coal while renewable energy technologies mature and become cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Building our entire energy future on shale gas would result in even more expressed climate change impact, further deteriorating already poor environmental condition of our planet.

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