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Why Shale Gas and Fracking May Be Part of Our Clean Energy Future

By Boyd Cohen

I must admit that I have been heavily focused on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro and biofuels as the medium-long-term path towards meeting our growing energy needs while minimizing our impacts on the climate and the environment.  And recently I spoke out against nuclear’s role in the long-term energy mix.

I am still a big believer in renewables as a key part of our energy mix. However we have yet to scale renewables to the point that we no longer need fossil fuels.  In the U.S. for example, only 7% of total energy consumption comes from renewables.

In our book, Climate Capitalism, Hunter Lovins and I make a strong argument for the potential for renewables in the short term to supply most of our energy needs.  I stand by our claims.  However, I also am increasingly convinced that we need to clean our fossil fuel supply ASAP.

For too long we have been dependent on coal and oil to meet our energy needs.  Both of these fuels are relatively high in calorific value yet too high in carbon emissions.   While I have written about ways to clean up the coal industry, both from the supply side through projects like coal mine methane as well as from the energy production side, mostly from co-firing coal with low-carbon biofuels like torrefied wood, I believe we need to take a serious look at gas, and particularly unconventional gas reserves.

Natural gas already represents about ¼ of the U.S. energy mix.  Burning natural gas produces less CO2 emissions than the main sources of fossil fuel.

A few weeks ago Time Magazine’s cover provocatively asked: “Could Shale Gas Power the World.”

As Time Magazine reported, the potential energy reserves from shale gas could be a boon for domestic energy producers. “The usually sober U.S. Energy Information Administration more than doubled its estimates of recoverable domestic shale-gas resources to 827 trillion cu. ft. (23 trillion cu m), more than 34 times the amount of gas the U.S. uses in a year. Together with supplies from conventional gas sources, the U.S. may now have enough gas to last a century at current consumption rates. (By comparison, the U.S. has less than nine years of oil reserves.)”

As reported here on TriplePundit last week, the Clean Energy Trends 2011 Report noted growth in renewables but also suggested that unconventional natural gas will become an increasingly important part of the energy mix.  This was backed up by a recent article in Grist highlighting the energy mix projections created by Black & Veatech.

The B&V report suggests that by 2035 coal will dwindle as a percentage of our energy supply while gas, particularly shale gas, will grow significantly.

Even President Obama has recently indicated significant support for natural gas as a means of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

However, before we dive in head first to the new gold rush of shale gas we also must seriously consider the environmental impacts of shale gas production.  As I began to write this post on Earth Day, a leak was been reported in a shale gas operation in Pennsylvania.

Environmentalists have been having a field day criticizing the hydraulic fracturing “fracking” technique and calling for a ban on shale gas exploration.  A new documentary called Gasland also sheds light on the environmental risks of fracking.  I haven’t seen it although I have ordered it so I will report back.

One of the reasons for my recent interest in unconventional gas is that my company has partnered with one of the leading U.S. experts in directional drilling, Target Drilling to help us execute coal mine methane projects in Latin America.  Target Drilling is an expert in directional drilling and aside from coal mine methane, they have significant experience with coal bed methane and more recently, shale gas drilling as well.

While many environmentalists have raised concerns about the chemicals in the fluids used for fracking, those chemicals make up less than .5% of the total fluids used and the chances for those fluids to penetrate nearby areas passing through layers of rock is highly remote.  Per the above-mentioned Time magazine article: "I don't think it's scientifically plausible to suggest that could happen," says Don Siegel, a hydrogeologist at Syracuse University. In a 2009 study, the Ground Water Protection Council, a consortium that includes industry and state regulators, reported that the chance of aquifer contamination was extremely low.”

What Target Drilling, Time Magazine, and other experts have told me is that the real environmental risk is from the flowback water which returns after the fracking fluid has fractured the shale rock.  The flowback water is highly salinated and if not properly contained at the point of exit through quality cementing, or not properly transported or treated, environmental impacts can be substantial.

Consol Energy was recently accused of hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act for its improper disposal of flowback water which affected Dunkard Creek near the border of West Virginia and Penssylvania.  Consol Energy was ordered to pay $6 million in fines and has since committed to the development of a $200 million wastewater treatment system.

So, what is my take?  Shale gas poses a gigantic business opportunity for energy companies around the world.  It also has the potential to be an important, long-term energy resource which could help us ween ourselves from foreign oil and reduce our carbon footprint.  It is also highly controversial and will continue to be so as long as companies act irresponsibly.  As is the case in almost every industry, there will be leaders and laggards in the social and environmental responsibility of shale gas exploration and production.  We need to pass rigorous regulations in the U.S. and around the globe and hold producers accountable to those standards so that shale gas can be part of the clean energy solution.


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Read more stories by Boyd Cohen