Green News on shale gas

From the introduction by Irene Hahn-Fuhr and Klaus Linsenmeier

Poland is in a crucial and complex situation deciding upon its future national energy strategy. The discussion about the possibilities and potentials of shale gas extraction in Poland is triggered by concerns of a balanced and sustainable energy mix, national independence and security, economic prosperity or public consultation. The lively debates on fracking of unconventional gas have been lined by a lot of hope of a “Polish bonanza” regularly taking the “US shale gas revolution” as a shining example to its own socioeconomic developments. But what do we know about its realities? A variety of comments, interviews and reports from the Foundation's study trip can be found in a bilingual issue of the Magazine "Green News".

The Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbs) as a green-political dialogue forum deemed a nurtured transatlantic dialogue on all complex aspects concerning fracking of shale gas as crucial for an informed debate on all sides. In September 2014 the hbs-offices in Warsaw and Washington, therefore, organized a study tour to the US to offer Polish energy policy experts, activists and journalists profound insights into the effects that natural gas exploration (especially the “shale gas revolution”) have had on local communities. Through a series of meetings with public officials, policy experts as well as makers, local lawmakers and regulators, business representatives, and citizen and public advocacy groups the study trip gave a look at how the growth of the natural gas industry in recent years has impacted local economies, public infrastructure, public lands, and the environment. So, in a nutshell - what do we know by now?

The American Shale Gas Revolution – the Shining Example

Shale gas has become an increasingly important source of natural gas in the United States since the start of this century. In 2000 shale gas provided only 1% of U.S. natural gas production; by 2010 it was over 20% and the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2035, 46% of the United States' natural gas supply will come from shale gas

The United States is expected to become one of the world biggest oil producer of the world. The shale gas bonanza not only provides the country with cheap fossil fuel, which is helping to boost the US economy. Domestic shale oil and gas production also makes the country less dependent from foreign sources of fuel like the Middle East or Venezuela. The hot spots of shale oil and gas production are states like Pennsylvania, Dakota and Texas.

So it is no surprise that the Obama Administration embraces shale gas with some enthusiasm. When it comes to fossil fuels, burning gas promises to be a relatively clean source of energy and now even a very cheap one.

The US, however, also lacks a comprehensive energy strategy. The programmatic approach of “All of the above”, pleads to leave it to the market to make the best decision on which source of energy to use. President Obama, however, tries to reign in when it comes to CO2 emissions. The Obama administration believes that increased shale gas development will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, US carbon dioxide emissions dropped to a 20-year low. Human and public health – so goes the argument- will both benefit from shale gas by displacing coal burning.

Shale Gas and the Climate

The extraction and use of shale gas, however, can affect the environment through the leaking of extraction chemicals and waste into water supplies, the leaking of greenhouse gases (methane and others) during extraction, and the pollution caused by the improper processing of natural gas. A challenge to preventing pollution is that shale gas extractions vary widely in this regard, even between different wells in the same project. The processes that reduce pollution sufficiently in one extraction may not be enough in another.

In late 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new report, the first update on emission factors for greenhouse gas emissions by the oil and gas industry by the EPA since 1996. In this new report, the EPA concluded that shale gas emits larger amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than conventional gas does, but still far less than coal.

Where to go?

Shale gas fracturing provides the US with a cheap source of energy and makes the country less dependable from foreign sources of fuel. So industry and the security community are eager to support the shale gas industry. Though shale gas fracturing is conducted on a large scale in the US, too little is known about the impacts of the industry on public health, the environment and the climate. The availability of this unconventional gas in the future also is in the center of a controversy. Some experts argue that it will be fueling the US industry for decades, other count that the gas bonanza will come to an end within this decade. 

On the background of the success story of shale gas in the US economy, some experts expect that shale gas will expand worldwide. China is estimated to have the world’s largest shale gas reserves. Also many European countries look into their shale gas options.

The benefits and perils of shale gas production widely vary from country to country.  Europeans therefore carefully should study the experiences with this fossil fuel source. Not all US states happily embrace this technology. States like New York and Maryland decided to have a moratorium on shale gas drilling, that became permanent for New York State in December 2014.  Not only environment groups strongly argue against shale gas. It is predominantly the local population that resists shale gas fracturing due it its negatives effects on the communities. This is an important development for Europeans to study carefully, as the geological situation is different than in the US, but also because Europe is more densely populated.

Given the insecurity about the many aspects on shale gas fracturing in present and the availability of shale gas in the future Europeans should think about where to put their scientific energy and economic resources in. Europeans especially should give up subsidizing fossil fuel industries. Given the enormous success of the German energy transition, renewable energies are the best alternative to  any sort of fossil fuels from all aspects: public health, the climate and as recent developments prove also from an employment point of view as well as an all over economic development. Countries embracing these modern alternate technologies can make advantages of the “first movers” benefit in the near future.

Revitalizing Transatlantic Relations for a Green Economy

Both Europe and the United States can point to regional success stories in the area of low carbon growth. The Transatlantic Energy and Climate Network of the Heinrich Böll Foundation brings together opinion leaders, legislators, and policy experts from both sides of the Atlantic that are committed to achieving policy change in support for a low carbon economy agenda that creates sustainable jobs, strengthens local economies and helps to fight climate change. The Climate Network fosters a transatlantic dialogue through measures including public speaking and study tours, roundtable discussions, Climate Media Fellowships and by widely publishing energy reports across the United States and Europe.

Therefore, the Marcellus Shale Study Tour 2014 was one of the means by which the Heinrich Böll Foundation promotes professional international networks as well as an open and fair dialogue on sustainable energy policies. We hope that its results provide an interesting source of information for transatlantic exchange on shale gas.

Irene Hahn-Fuhr is the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw

Klaus Linsenmeier is the director of the EU office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Brussels. From 2009 to 2014 he was the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America in Washington D.C.

NB: The Transatlantic Energy and Climate Network is generously co-funded by the Delegation of the European Union to the United States in Washington

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