The question, as the United Kingdom sits on the cusp of developing its shale gas industry, is whether, in fact, that energy option will be the best path going forward.
In a paper, “Sustainability of UK shale gas in comparison with other electricity options: Current situation and future scenarios,” published in Science of the Total Environment, by Jasmin Cooper, Laurence Stamford and Adisa Azapagic on the sustainability of shale in the United Kingdom compared with other electricity options, the authors answer is … Maybe.
“The main purpose of our paper,” said Azapagic, professor of sustainable chemical engineering and head of sustainable industrial systems at the University of Manchester, “was to compare shale gas to other options (in the context of electricity generation).”
That’s important, for the U.K. has not yet committed itself to shale, so before it does, the authors believe it should first explore how shale’s overall sustainability stacks up against other energy options in which it could invest, especially in terms of the environmental, economic and social aspects.
Specifically, how did shale do?
From the report’s conclusion: “Therefore, while overall not the worst, shale gas is not one of the better options either.”
If this were a horse race, shale would have finished in the middle of the pack, ranking anywhere from 4th to 8th place out of the 9 options.
“Assuming all the indicators have equal weight,” Azapagic said – and by this she means, for instance, that the carbon footprint is as important as cost – shale falls behind solar/wind-hybrid photovoltaics, nuclear, conventional gas and liquefied natural gas, but ahead of biomass, hydro power and coal.
She quickly pointed out that this is not really a horse race, due to the number of other factors that go into such findings. Still, she maintained, the overall results are instructive to those in the United Kingdom who will make the decision.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that this ranking is quite specific to the U.K. and, of course, it’s not necessarily true that all indicators are equally important,” she said.
But one that is – the environment.
“Environmental issues are one of the main reasons for considerable public opposition to shale gas in the U.K., Europe, USA and elsewhere,” she said.
Azapagic, who is also editor-in-chief of “Sustainable Production and Consumption and Process Safety and Environmental Production,” contends that if shale producers could demonstrate genuine improvements to those environmental impacts, if they placed those results in context with other energy technologies, and if they interacted better with others scientists and scientific literature, the industry could reduce that opposition.
“Since public opposition is a major contributor to national policy in many countries and regions, this may make the difference between frac’ing being banned or supported. We have seen that in several countries that have banned frac’ng,” she said.
Is Shale Over-Hyped?
Which raises the question of whether, after decades of shale technology, its benefits have been oversold?
Azapagic said the answer largely depends on what question you’re asking.
“This depends on context. Much of the benefits in the USA have come from the displacement of coal, and our paper supports the notion that shale gas is more sustainable than coal,” even while lagging behind the sustainability of other energy options.
This notion of sustainability, which was the lynchpin of the study, involves, as mentioned, the environmental, but also the economic and societal.
The report was an attempt to deal with all three.
“The latter is harder to quantify than the former two, and in this case, we have used several metrics to try to account for the societal impacts of energy generation. These are the potential to provide employment, the expected number of worker injuries, public support index and a measure of security of supply,” she said.
The study indicates that some countries may – and, again, that “may” is operative – have jumped on the shale bandwagon too soon. When asked whether those countries that have since banned hydraulic fracturing are more free to explore other energy sources than those that put their proverbial exploration eggs in the shale basket, Azapagic said it’s possible.
“This is difficult to answer, but relates to the concept of the so-called ‘technological lock-in,’” she said.
She is talking here about the possibility that investing in large amounts of infrastructure for a particular type of energy provision (gas) locks the economy into a way of doing things that becomes suboptimal in future.
“Given the very rapid reductions in prices for renewables in recent years, it is possible that countries pursuing a more renewable-intensive economy will be at an advantage,” she said.
But this is speculation, she readily admits, and is difficult to predict. Further, what worked in the United States and the reasons it has worked might not be helpful for the energy dynamic in the U.K.
Unless the U.K. is smarter in its approach.
Azapagic said it is possible to arrive at an outcome where shale gas is the best option, but three significant aspects have to change:
- The exploration of shale gas would need a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts.
- There would need to be a 16-fold increase in employment.
- The electricity mix would need to encompass less rather than more shale gas.
These steps would be significant, complicated and, she concluded, largely unrealistic.
She knows that government officials weigh their energy needs differently than stakeholders, especially in relation to the aforementioned sustainability indicators.
In the United States, for instance – the only country to extensively exploit shale gas so far – the main benefit, Azapagic said, has been a decrease in energy costs.
She said, “Of course there are many other variables such as human health impacts (incurred and avoided) and, without an accurate predictive model of whole-economy impacts, it is difficult to make an informed judgment” of the future of shale in the U.K.
Just recently, according to the International Energy Association, U.S. crude oil production is set to exceed the output of Saudi Arabia for the first time in decades. Clearly, shale has much to do with that.
Still, what drives shale in the United States might not apply in the U.K.
“In the USA, for instance, shale gas is considerably cheaper than we predict it to be in the U.K., so for many people in government this benefit might outweigh other impacts. In our case, we would hope that the U.K. will take these findings into account.”
Environmentally, a future electricity mix with a lower penetration of shale gas is more sustainable than the one with higher contribution, but if higher importance is placed on the economic or social aspect, the high shale gas mix outranks the low due to the relatively low cost of shale gas compared to renewables.
“The intention of our work,” she concluded, “was to show where shale gas sits in relation to the other electricity technologies with respect to sustainability, aiming to inform various stakeholders, including governments.”