Fracking: American dream, Chinese pipe-dream, global nightmare

Energy policy should instead focus on renewables

Share
Related Topics

Across Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, fracking wells periodically burst out of the green scenery , little man-made islands heaving with activity in the middle of grazing lands.  Trucks ferrying fracking equipment are ubiquitous on the back roads, some with Wild West names such as “Stallion” and “GoFrack,” others with lazy monikers like “Key Energy” and “Basic Energy.”

US companies’ keenness to be part of this new gold rush is palpable, and is mirrored thousands of miles away in Shanxi Province, China, at the country’s state-owned coking coal companies.  Except that in Shanxi Province, barren, brown landscapes assault the eyes with no visible evidence of any fossil fuel activity other than coal.  While the US is fracking its way to energy supremacy (at least the fossil fuel kind) via more than 400,000 shale gas wells drilled so far, China, the world's fourth-largest natural gas consumer, has so far only drilled 150 wells.  India has drilled none, and the EU-28 have drilled very few. 

China, India and the EU are all wondering how they will respond to this US energy revolution. But while they may dream of replicating America’s fracking frenzy, they will soon find that this isn’t possible.  Indeed, shale gas being a “bridge” to a cleaner world is a myth:  The US will continue to successfully extract it, thus resulting in more methane emissions but also in cheaper US energy.  As a result, cheap coal America no longer needs will continue to be diverted overseas, locking coal infrastructure for decades.

India’s miserable track record of extracting coal bed methane (an underground fracking process similar to that used for shale gas) speaks volumes: After a decade of exploration, the country has a paltry haul to show for its efforts.  Land acquisitions are nightmarish; the population density 10 times that of the US and its regulatory framework doesn’t work.  Water scarcity doesn’t help either, and will get more difficult when the country shifts its attention to shale (which requires perhaps 20 times more water to extract than coal bed methane). One can anticipate the emerging conflicts over water with the local population when the drillers turn up in force. 

In China, shale gas reserves are a technological challenge of a different order than in the US, due to complex geology, a far greater earthquake risk, loud local environmental awareness, high population density, and water shortages. It will take a long time to move past these challenges.  Sichuan Province, where China’s fracking industry is taking-off, is a hotbed of seismic activity and it’s not difficult to guess what will happen when the local population wakes up to see hydraulic wells awkwardly sprouting in a province all too familiar with earthquakes’ human and environmental costs.

In the EU-28, debate is raging about fracking.  France and the Netherlands have banned the practice, whereas the UK, Denmark and Poland seem keen. But below the surface hiss any number of problems. The production sharing contract used throughout most of Europe’s energy projects, which would split the benefits of extraction between different parties including landowners and communities, doesn’t work for shale.  Similarly, different property rights frameworks will cause dramatic hold ups. While US frackers have bought out tens of thousands of landowners, you can’t lease your mineral rights as a private landowner in most of Europe and local councils invariably have a loud say.  Add the lack of infrastructure to carry the gas and increased dissent from local and environmental groups, and it’s not difficult to conclude that fracking will not take off in any meaningful sense for a decade or more. 

Like an under-performing drug, what we are left with are the side-effects of fracking.  Unwanted US coal is flooding the world and delivering a perverse gas-to-coal switch in Europe and elsewhere.  In turn, this is causing increased emissions outside the US and logically making coal-fired power plants more desirable in the EU, China, India and elsewhere.  Meanwhile, in the US, the debate is raging about whether the industry is disclosing the correct number of wells it is drilling and what the actual methane emissions contribution of the industry is (my guess: huge). 

The only way out of this vicious circle is for Europe, China and India to realize that fracking is a pipe dream and focus on developing viable renewable energy sources while curbing their addiction to fossil fuels. Policymakers must not let shale gas become a smokescreen obscuring the need for robust emissions reduction policies. EU leaders should take decisive action to fix their continent’s ailing carbon market, currently crippled by a rock-bottom carbon price. India and China should change tack and lead the world’s climate change negotiations towards decisive action. 

Exporting the US shale gas model is a pipe-dream which if indulged will push the world down the path to climate chaos - truly an international nightmare.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Real Estate Solicitor 2+PQE - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGH VALUE REAL ESTATE / RESID...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Are you looking for part time/ ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Theresa May  

It's not hard to imagine Prime Minister Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street

Jane Merrick
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?