In response a question posed on energy policy discussion website, OurEnergyPolicy.org, I address the popular issue of unconventional shale gas, and hydraulic fracturing. Followers of this site may notice I have a new Case Study on Hydraulic Fracturing in New York - and this post is very much in line with my views on that matter as well. The questions were posed on OEP’s post entitled “Can We Get It Right On Gas?” – click the link for the setup; my comment is below.
One of my first thoughts about natural gas is that there is indeed a “boom mentality“, and a great deal of hype from most places in the world concerning the benefits shale gas will bring. I think it is all too often that we refer to energy in terms of other issues, such as environment or the economy; and now in terms of the economy, there is a desire for quick fixes to long term, systematic problem. Shale gas, many in the United States say, will bring jobs and help our struggling economy restart. Shale gas, many in the Europe say, will help a region on the verge of financial disaster, maintain stability. One of the few countries who aren’t keen on unconventional natural gas in terms of economics is Russia – simply because they have a vast stock of conventional natural gas, and want to maintain their markets in Europe and developing Asia. (They also don’t have the technology and experience the US has in the newer methods of recovering shale gas).
I bring up the global perspective yet again because it’s very important to understand the broader implications of shale gas development – and the amount of hope that is put into it. The International Energy Agency’s report, “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas” - is very much a nod to the global benefits of shale gas, given that the best practices are put in place and the downsides are manageable. So again, there are big dreams to be made come true, simply by way of natural gas.
I say here openly that I do not take the position of “no more fracking” – I know realistically it is not going to stop. The trump card in terms of all energy discussion is that demand is going to dominate everything; the want for energy is so strong that nothing is going to slow it down, whatever form of energy it is going to be – and the demands is not going to disappear.
With all of this in mind, here is what I would advocate for in terms of the US – slow down. Do more research. Find even more ways to deal with wastewater, do more experimenting, see the experiments through. There is no hurry, and there seems little advantage to hastening the development of US unconventional gas.
It will be significantly better for the United States and the rest of the world (who will get the technology eventually, one way or another, I’d wager), that better regulations are put in place. The most strict guidelines of transparency and best practices need to be followed, and if they are, then I have a feeling that would help much of the public relations problems fracking groups have to deal with. A much more open and earnest approach – yes there are problems, here’s how we’re working with them – would be much more appreciated than “greenwashing” (making everything seem find and safe and dandy) hydrofracking. It’s not a smart move by the industry when it does this – (some outlets do this more than others) – because it creates resentment and polarization.
The industry should be more openly compliant in terms of the information it discloses – yes intellectual property matters, but so, too, does a real connection with the people you are serving and benefiting (which ought to be Americans – ‘ought to be’). Whether any of this actually happens, it’s another story. But public relations and finesse is only one matter, of course.
If the US wants to be smart, as in, do what is actually good for the American people, then there is absolutely no hurry. Continue perfecting shale recovery technology, continue to make regulations matter, and continue to put people first instead of profits – I am not implying here that profits do come first, but this is the perception that needs to be changed. The US should – ideally – become a global leader in safely producing natural gas. That should be the goal.
So again, the problem I see is the sense of rush or urgency, especially fueled with the naiveté about economic glory that is now associated with The Shale Gas Boom. The US economy, as well as the global economy, has significant problems that at best an energy boom would be a band-aid for, and at worst will provide a false sense of safety and progress – so I very much encourage distinction between these issues.
The US will benefit itself the most by having sound regulations, and being able to export a technology and know-how that is remarkably safe – thereby preserving fragile environmental conditions (especially fresh water and drinkable water), and helping bring clarity to America’s (and the world’s) actual energy situation.
We’re going to need more time to develop renewables, and natural gas (in and of itself) has much less CO2 emissions than coal. Combining this with the energy reality of unprecedented, growing levels of energy demand, and we have a situation that compels us to use what resources are available – but with as much wisdom and caution as possible.
I don’t begrudge corporate interests for wanting to accelerate growth and secure market dominance – that’s what they are going to do whatever the case. But the US regulatory bodies, state and federal, need to function properly and have teeth — otherwise any efforts at following the Golden Rules will be a sham, and people will see Golden Era Golden Dreams turn into nightmares.
The opportunity is very important, it must be viewed within the global context of energy and the realities of our current situation, not short-sighted fixes or desperate attempts at improving economic bottom lines. If we are to combine our high standards of living with an environment we want to live in, we have to make tough choices and proceed with caution. Clinging to convenient perspectives and outdated paradigms are not going to help us deal with the energy challenge – which at its core asks us to consider how we want to move forward in this ever-changing global system we’re interdependent in. The US should make the right choice for its own citizens, and realize that this choice can be the right choice for the rest of the planet.
Jesse Parent is a researcher, analyst, and editor focusing on energy & resources, technology, and global affairs. For more of Jesse’s thoughts throughout the week and to see what news he’s following, you are invited to join the conversation via Twitter and Facebook. Visit Jesse Parent [INFLUENCE] to view Case Studies, Commentary and more.
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