A silver lining?

Shale Gas Meets Global Climate Change

By Kelly Rogers

United Nations climate conferences can be kind of depressing. The predictions for climate change are drastic and most experts agree that the world needs to take bold action to move towards a low-carbon economy. Side conferences and events explored possible energy alternatives all over Durban. As discussed at the International Gas Union conference in Durban on December 4, the development of shale gas is like a diamond in a coal mine in terms of our global energy dilemma. Natural gas extracted from shale beds by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has the potential to be a global “game changer.”

Last month, Reuters announced that Royal Dutch Shell had begun shale gas production in China. An International Energy Administration report said that China’s recoverable shale gas reserves are the largest in the world. Even in South Africa, a debate over developing the shale in the Karoo region has provided an alternative to South Africa’s reliance on coal. United States’ natural gas reserves, followed by Argentina’s are the second and third largest in the world, respectively. As seen most recently with the recent development of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, the positives of development are numerous but the opposition to development is strong. Fear of damage to environmental and public health have muted the extraordinary benefits of this natural resources, which is especially problematic when the broader global problem of climate change and the need for a low carbon economy are considered.

Drill Bits of Benefits:

Climate friendly: Though there have been recent doubts about methane leakage with natural gas development, most individuals confirm that the resource is more climate-friendly than coal and oil. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that natural gas produces 43 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal for each unit of energy and 30 percent for oil. 

Jobs: There should be no doubt that this industry is an incredibly strong employer of US workers, especially in a time period of high domestic unemployment. The most recent report released in December by forecaster IHS Global Insight predicts that by 2015 the total US natural gas jobs forecast will grow to 870,000. The Department of Labor and Industry of Pennsylvania (a major shale gas state), report industry economic and job statistics almost every month and most recently reported “areas with significant Marcellus Shale drilling activity have seen notable decreases in unemployment rates.” Jobs aren’t the only economic benefit of drilling—most economic impact studies predict millions of dollars of direct and indirect economic growth.  

Security: Promoting greater use of natural gas is important for decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. US domestic natural gas reserves are incredibly bountiful so the more we can displace oil with gas, the less we will be dependent on somewhat hostile foreign nations. Also, due to significant private sector investment, the groundwork has been laid for several natural gas vehicle projects, which helps reduce carbon emissions.  

These are just three reasons to support the shale gas revolution—the list of positives doesn’t stop here. This gas phenomenon, however, has far reaching effects. From Pennsylvania to Argentina and Durban to China, this industry isn’t going away anytime soon. A switch from dirtier fossil fuels to cleaner ones like natural gas could provide significant co-benefits and should really be a no-brainer for policy makers. Forums like the IGU event in Durban are essential for linking networks and sharing best practices. More importantly, placing this energy source in the context of the larger climate change issue reminds us that US energy policy on issues like natural gas doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Though some oppose natural gas over claims of local environmental damage, gas development is an important step towards a low-carbon global economy.