The gas don’t work

By Bryan Walker 27/06/2011

’L&M Energy Limited is pleased to announce that it has identified five areas of interest in the South Island of New Zealand that hold significant shale gas potential analogous to some of the most productive shale acreage in the USA.’ This statement headed a press release from L&M Energy on Friday. I first heard the news on the radio the next morning. My heart sank at yet another indication that we are determined to extract and use all the fossil fuel deposits we can lay our hands on. The Minister for Economic Development, Gerry Brownlee, on the other hand, no doubt felt buoyed up by the announcement. This is what he wrote in the introduction to the Draft Energy Strategy last year:

’For too long now we have not made the most of the wealth hidden in our hills, under the ground,  and in our oceans. It is a priority of this government to responsibly develop those resources.’

He wasn’t just talking about geothermal energy or tidal power but about coal, lignite, deep sea oil and gas, and methane hydrates. And now he can add possible shale gas to the list.

The temptation to sarcastic comment is strong, but I’ll try to avoid it. Shale gas has been hailed in many countries, especially the US. The quantities in which it may be able to be extracted have led some delirious commenters to speak of a new energy dawn. It’s often described as some kind of green energy, on the grounds that burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. It’s sometimes referred to as a bridge to the always-coming day when we leave fossil fuels behind. In fact there’s doubt that shale gas is less carbon-intensive than coal. In May 2010 the Council of Scientific Society Presidents wrote to President Obama urging great caution against a national policy of developing shale gas without a better scientific basis for the policy. Later last year the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that shale gas emits much larger amounts of methane than does conventional gas. A peer-reviewed study by Robert Howarth and colleagues from Cornell University was published in Climate Change Letters in April of this year. This from the announcement of the paper:

’Natural gas has been widely touted as a clean energy source that will help the U.S. transition to renewable energy options while lowering greenhouse gas emissions relative to other fossil fuels. While it is true that end-use combustion of natural gas emits markedly less carbon dioxide (CO2) than other fossil energy sources, methane (CH4) losses during modern gas exploration and development, as well as processing, transmission and distribution may fully negate these CO2 savings. A full accounting of modern gas development indicates that natural gas may actually exacerbate, rather than mitigate, global climate change.’

And more specifically from the paper itself:

’The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.’

The touting of natural gas as a bridge to the decarbonised economy is all very well, but the enormous expansion of the resource which shale gas may enable looks less like a bridge than a lingering in the fossil fuel economy which has brought us into the dangerous world we now inhabit. Talk of bridging sounds like greenwash. In New Zealand, as in many other countries, the addition of shale gas to the mining armoury is likely to prove only another step to climate disaster.