People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom
and doom. The oil’s running out, the lights are going out, the
pollution’s getting worse. But pause to consider the good news.
Like shale gas.
Over the past decade, a wave of drilling
around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in
shale rock. By some estimates, there’s 1,000 trillion cubic feet
recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation’s
natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200
trillion cubic feet of its own.
Imagine a source of energy…
that does not require the felling of forests, like wood
that does not require the flooding of valleys or damming of
streams, like hydro
that does not require sending men underground, quarrying or
using heavy rail cars, like coal
that if it leaks does not `spill’ and kill wildlife, like
that does not need rare earths, huge landscapes and back-up
power, like wind
that does not require insurance subsidy, like nuclear
that does not cost a fortune for every joule, like solar
that does not mean the loss of tidal habitats, like tidal
that works, unlike wave power
that does not mean taking food from the mouths of the poor, like
that produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal
that can be used for heat, cooking, electricity or fertiliser
that does not depend on weird regimes.
No wonder that Amy Myers Jaffe argues that
With natural gas cheap and abundant, the
prospects for renewable energy will change just as drastically. I
have been a big believer that renewable energy was about to see its
time. Prior to the shale-gas revolution, I thought rising
hydrocarbon prices would propel renewables and nuclear power into
the marketplace easily-albeit with a little shove from a carbon tax
or a cap-and-trade system.
But the shale discoveries complicate the
issue, making it harder for wind, solar and biomass energy, as well
as nuclear, to compete on economic grounds. Subsidies that made
renewables competitive with shale gas would get more expensive, as
would loan guarantees and incentives for new nuclear plants. Shale
gas also hurts the energy-independence argument for renewables:
Shale gas is domestic, just like wind and solar, so we won’t be
shipping those dollars to the Middle East.
The search is on for the bad news to hang round the neck of
shale gas. Groundwater contamination is the chosen one. But the gas
lies far beaneath most aquifers so it’s not a persuasive worry yet.
Truth is, shale gas looks like giving us the ideal cheap, safe,
clean, easily transported, moderately-low-carbon bridge till new
technology makes solar affordable in, say, the 2040s.