Shale-gas producers face opposition from “greens”, who object to the industry’s heavy water usage and a small risk that fracking could lead to contamination of aquifers and even to earthquakes. There is also a risk that large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, could escape during shale-gas exploration and production. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that shale-gas production emits 3.5% more than conventional gas, and 12% when it involves venting excess gas.
Gas production in the United States continues to astonish. In the last years the country’s shale-gas industry, which produces natural gas from shale rock by bombarding it with water and chemicals, a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, grew by 45% a year. As a proportion of US overall gas production shale gas has increased from 4% in 2005 to 24% today. Its storage facilities are rapidly filling, and its gas price has collapsed. America is estimated to have enough gas to sustain its current production rate for over a century.
America’s gas boom confers a huge economic advantage. It has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly. And it has rejuvenated several industries, including petrochemicals, where ethane produced from natural gas is a feedstock.
The gas price is likely to rise in the next few years, because of increasing demand. Peter Voser, the boss of Royal Dutch Shell, an oil firm with big shale-gas investments, expects it to double by 2015.
Last year the IEA released a report entitled “Are we entering a golden age of gas?”, and last month it released a follow-up, from which it dropped the question-mark. It foresees a tripling in the supply of unconventional gas between 2010 and 2035, leading to a slower price rise than would otherwise be expected. It expects this to boost global demand by more than 50%.