Last updated January 18, 2018 at 4:16 pm
Shale gas is being promoted heavily by the gas industry as a future energy source, however new research has found that it is among the least sustainable energy sources available to us.
Shale gas is natural gas deposits found in shale, or fine-grained sedimentary rocks. Locked deep underground, the gas is extracted by fracturing the rocks, releasing the gas and allowing it to be taken to the surface. This process, fracking, is highly controversial and subject to numerous protests around Australia.
Now research from the University of Manchester in the UK, where shale gas is an emerging industry, has found that taking into account a range of sustainability aspects and assuming that they are all equally important, shale gas overall ranks seventh out of nine electricity options.
For it to become the most sustainable option, the researchers say huge improvements would be necessary.
In particular, they found:
Environmental impacts of fracking would need to be reduced 329-fold
The number of jobs created would need to be increased by 16-fold.
They concluded that a sustainable electricity mix is one that contains less, rather than more, shale gas.
To rate the impact, the researchers considered 18 environmental, economic and social sustainability factors of shale gas in the UK, and compared it to other electricity generating options. These were coal, nuclear, natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, hydro and biomass.
The sustainability indicators considered included climate change impacts, environmental pollution, public perception, and the creation of jobs. They also included the price of electricity.
The top ranked energy sources were wind and solar PV, far above shale gas.
The environmental and social sustainability of shale gas would also need to improve by up to 100 times for it to compare with domestic natural gas and imported LNG. On the upside, shale gas was better than coal, which came in bottom.
There were very few criteria where shale gas redeemed itself, and for shale gas to become considered most sustainable the importance given to some of those criteria in the analysis would need to be increased up to 10,000 times.
“Many countries are considering exploitation of shale gas but its overall sustainability is disputed. Previous studies focused mainly on environmental aspects of shale gas, largely in the US, with scant information on socio-economic aspects,” said Prof. Adisa Azapagic, who led the research for the School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science.
“To address this knowledge gap our research, for the first time, looks not only at the environmental impacts but the economic and social aspects of shale gas as well. This enables us to evaluate its overall sustainability rather than focusing on single issues, such as water pollution, traffic and noise, which have dominated the debate on shale gas so far.”
Shale Gas Australia, an industry lobby group advocating for shale gas exploration in Australia, point to the benefits of shale gas, including economic development, energy security and lower emissions. However, the new paper skewers those arguments, highlighting that a mix of other technologies will be more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.
Prof. Azapagic added: “The results of this study clearly show that, assuming equal importance of the environmental, economic and social aspects, shale gas ranks seventh out of the nine electricity options, which means most other options for electricity generation are more sustainable.
“The results also suggest that any future electricity mix would be more sustainable with a lower rather than a higher share of shale gas.”
The research has been published in Science of The Total Environment.