Without a global carbon price, the expanding shale gas boom would exacerbate climate change and take money away from renewable energy projects, a new report said, calling for a worldwide pause until countries take steps necessary to lower the risks of the new wave of drilling.
The report from the well-respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester is one of the the first to try to measure the global warming implications of the shale gas drilling bonanza. The boom has caused a sustained drop in natural gas prices that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
The report said that if the world taps 10 to 40 percent of the gas trapped in shale fields around the world, then an additional 3 to 11 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide would be released by 2050. Climate science points to the need to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and steadily cut them in coming decades.
Global CO2 levels are nearing 390 ppm, according to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Some eminent climate scientists, including NASA climatologist James Hansen, believe that Earth's threshold of climate danger is at 350 ppm, a level passed two decades ago.
Kevin Anderson, a lead researcher and former director of the Tyndall Centre, described the prospect of a shale explosion as "very worrisome."
"We need to be bringing that concentration [of CO2] and the cumulative values down very rapidly," he told SolveClimate News. "In our view, [shale] would almost certainly be additional carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The best place for it remains in the ground."
No 'Available Evidence' that Gas is Bridging Fuel
The study challenges the assumption that natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, is a transition energy source to a low-carbon future. "None of the available evidence indicates that this is likely to be the case," the authors wrote.
While they acknowledge that shale gas releases about 40 percent fewer greenhouse emissions than coal, Anderson and his colleagues believe it's a moot point because coal will remain king as energy demand grows.
"In the absence of any strong carbon dioxide cap at a global level, all that will happen is that shale gas will be burned in addition to coal — not as a substitute," Anderson said.
The report said that in America the best one could "optimistically" argue is that shale may curb coal's growth rate. The study cites figures from the national Energy Information Administration (EIA) showing that coal consumption is set to rise by 12 percent by 2035.
The U.S. is the only country to have achieved success in commercial shale gas development.
The UK, which is considering lucrative shale plays and was the main focus of the Tyndall Centre report, is already weaning itself off of coal, with 30 percent of the nation's coal-burning plants expected to shut down at the end of 2015.
Anderson said his primary concern there and elsewhere is that shale gas would substitute for renewable generation, especially if new production further drives down natural gas prices.
Shale Gas Gains Sudden Popularity, Scrutiny
The study comes at a time when previously inaccessible shale gas has gained sudden popularity worldwide.
In the U.S., shale gas has ballooned from 1 percent of natural gas production in 2000 to roughly 10 percent today, thanks to new techniques for drilling horizontally into shale rock, called hydrofracturing, or fracking. The EIA projects the sector will represent 24 percent of natural gas supplies by 2035.
At the same time, the estimates of recoverable resources continue to leap dramatically. The early release of the EIA's 2011 figures show a 100 percent jump over the 2010 estimate.
The drilling enthusiasm is spreading, especially to China, Turkey, India and across Europe, led by Poland, which is especially eager to end its dependence on Russian natural gas. The rush is also making the industry the focus of intense global investment and environmental scrutiny.
Call for Moratorium Until EPA Weighs In
The controversial practice of fracking blasts a brew of water, chemicals, sand or plastic beads at high pressure deep into horizontal wells under shale deposits to crack loose the trapped gas. Up to 90 percent of the drilling fluids — whose ingredients are protected as U.S. trade secrets — remain underground.
In the U.S., the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Increasingly, though, it is being implicated in drinking-water contamination across gas country.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a $1.9 million study early last year into fracking's potential health risks, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.
The Tyndall Centre called for a moratorium in the UK and across Europe on new fracking projects until those results come in.
"Given the requirement for EU member states to apply the precautionary principle, shale gas exploitation should be delayed until at least after the EPA has reported and, depending on the findings, perhaps longer," the report said.
"There certainly seems to be some strong anecdotal evidence from what's happened in the states that there are potential contamination routes," Anderson said. "These are not sufficiently well understood to say we should be going for wholesale extraction as yet."