Energy agency forecasts golden age for gas

19th June 2012


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Unconventional sources will provide a "golden age" for natural gas, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), but only if strict rules to minimise environmental impacts are abided by

In a new report, the IEA has set out a series of “golden rules” to address what the Paris-based organisation describes as legitimate public concerns about exploiting shale gas reserves across the world on a similar scale to what is already being achieved in the US.

“If the social and environmental impacts are not addressed properly, there is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling for shale gas and other types of unconventional gas will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks,” warned IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven.

The exploitation of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, has expanded rapidly across the US, with enough recoverable resources to supply the country with natural gas for the next 90 years.

South America, China, parts of North Africa and Europe all have significant shale gas reservoirs and could soon be using fracking to tap into previously unworkable gas reserves. However, fracking in the US is controversial as it is increasingly blamed for polluting water aquifers and contaminating rivers.

The IEA rules say that measures should be put in place to prevent any leaks from wells into nearby aquifers, and that rigorous assessment and monitoring of water requirements and of wastewater is necessary. Drilling operations should also be subject to greater regulatory control, says the report.

“The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance, and governments must ensure that appropriate policies and regulatory regimes are in place,” said van der Hoeven.

Potential investors welcomed the report. “Without effective regulation and an energy policy that aims to reduce carbon emissions, we fear there will be growing opposition to shale gas from environmentalists and the wider public,” said Dr Craig Mackenzie, head of sustainability at Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, a major shareholder in the oil and gas sector.

“We see the IEA’s golden rules as an excellent blueprint for building public trust and confidence in this new energy resource.”

However, WWF warned that use of unconventional gas resources, even if the environmental impacts associated with extraction are overcome, would send global temperatures soaring.

“A golden age for gas is clearly very far from a golden age for the planet. Buried in the depths of this report is the bombshell that a global dash for unconventional gas will condemn us to warming of at least 3.5°C,” said Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF-UK.

Last year, the energy and climate change committee warned that a second dash for gas in the UK could delay or even marginalise the development of renewables and make it impossible for the UK to achieve its emissions targets.

Scientists recently gave their backing to shale gas exploration in the UK, despite finding that the only drilling operation in the country triggered minor earthquakes in Lancashire in 2011.

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