Economies of Shale

The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Economies of Shale


The weather conditions of the past week could not have been better conceived to show up the inadequacies of Britain's - and the rest of Europe's - energy policy. A vast anticyclone extending from Siberia to eastern England has brought snow as far south as Rome and temperatures of minus 40C to Eastern Europe. With North Sea gas production in sharp decline, never has Europe's position on the end of a long gas pipeline originating in Russia been so exposed.

As that country's demand for energy has spiked, so the quantity of gas which it is prepared to export to the rest of Europe - also gagging for extra energy - has slumped. The wholesale price of gas has soared by more than a third in a week. Were electricity companies not still able to substitute some gas generating capacity with coal-fired power - from plants due to be closed in 2016 to meet carbon-reduction targets - we could well find ourselves struggling to keep the lights on. Try as we might, we are not going to achieve national energy security with any presently known renewable technologies, as they are too expensive and unreliable. It is conceivable that we could achieve it, however, by means of a vast but hitherto unexploited resource: shale gas.

The vast reserves of gas concealed in shale have long been known about, but until recently there was no economic means to extract them. Over the past five years, however, the situation has changed dramatically, thanks to a method of hydraulically fracturing rock along its seams - or 'fracking' for short. While Britain and Europe have been throwing hundreds of billions in subsidies at renewable energy, the US shale gas industry has expanded to account for one quarter of all the country's gas production - all without subsidies. In doing so it has caught many environmentalists completely unawares. The energy-scarce world of their dreams has been put off for a couple of centuries at least;

instead we are staring at a future of potential energy abundance.

Moreover, exploitation of shale gas is not at odds with carbon reduction policies: kilo - watt for kilowatt, energy generated from shale gas emits only half as much carbon as coal - the energy source which it is already beginning to replace in many American states. It is estimated that $4 spent on shale delivers the same energy as $25 spent on oil Even Barack Obama has belatedly started to extol the virtues of shale: little wonder, given that a shale-driven glut of natural gas has halved US electricity prices. Over the last three years, more than 4,000 wells have been drilled in the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania.

Early indications are that Europe may be no less fortunate in its reserves than the US. …

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