When that happens, the theory goes, we can
all embrace a fossil fuel-free future.
Earlier this month the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tentatively endorsed the use of shale
gas, despite concerns that the fracking process releases considerable
quantities of methane - a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.
There are other questions about the future
of fracking. The process uses vast amounts of water: the Ground Water
Protection Council, made up of various US state water regulatory
agencies, estimates that each fracking operation requires between two
and four million gallons of water.
With parts of the US like a pincushion,
punctured by thousands of wells, that’s an awful lot of water. The US
Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the more than
35,000 oil and gas wells engaged in fracking use up to 140 billion
gallons of water each year, roughly equivalent, it says, to the annual
consumption of a city of five million. A cocktail of chemicals is added
to water in the fracking process, and most water used is not recycled.
Moreover, many regions where fracking is
most intensive are also areas prone to serious water shortages. A 2013
report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a
network of community groups across four states in the US west including
North Dakota, one of the main fracking areas, said water used in the
extraction process threatened supplies for agriculture and for rural
“There is mounting evidence that the
current level of water use for oil and gas production simply cannot be
sustained and that projected increases in use may lead to a crisis”,
says the WORC. “Something has to give.”
Then there are questions about the whole
financial basis of fracking, with critics warning that the industry is a
bubble that will soon burst – “the new subprime” threatening not only
the energy sector but also the US financial system.
Billions of dollars have been sunk into
the fracking industry. Fracking is a far more expensive process than
most conventional oil and gas exploration, involving both vertical and
horizontal drilling techniques.
At first shale wells produce large volumes
of oil and gas but production tends to taper off fast. New wells then
have to be sunk in order to maintain production. Typically, shale
companies operate on substantial levels of debt, continually faced with
having to service their vast borrowings.
While up-to-date, detailed information on
the overall state of the fracking industry is hard to come by, some
analysts say production is already showing signs of peaking, causing
nervousness among investors.
Many operators focus on the extraction of
shale oil, which commands higher prices in the market: infrastructure
for shale gas - which involves the construction of compressor stations,
storage facilities and thousands of miles of pipelines - is still
That’s why, say some analysts, rather than
spend billions of dollars developing domestic infrastructure, the US gas
industry is urging the authorities to build terminals to export shale
gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe and Asia, where
it will fetch prices up to five times higher. Already two bills have
been introduced into Congress aimed at fast-tracking LNG exports.
The fracking industry has repeatedly said
that all the drilling and disruption is worthwhile in order to achieve
US energy self-sufficiency. But with production becoming increasingly
difficult and expensive, and with the frackers anxious to recoup their
expenditure by exporting to Europe and China, achieving that
self-sufficiency looks more and more like a distant dream.
Climate News Network