A new study carried out by the Manchester University has found that the impact of shale gas on the environment can in many respects be smaller than that of renewables.
The new research – published in the leading academic journal Applied Energy, and its findings later to be outlined at the annual Labour Party Conference – has found that with regard to greenhouse emissions and other environmental aspects shale gas is comparable to natural gas.
According to the study, the average emissions of greenhouse gases from shale gas over its entire life cycle are about 460 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, which is comparable to the emissions from conventional natural gas.
But the real surprise came when researchers compared shale gas to common renewable energy sources. It turned out that shale gas was better than offshore wind and solar for four out of 11 impacts:
- depletion of natural resources,
- toxicity to humans, and
- the impact on freshwater and marine organisms.
Additionally, shale gas was better than solar (but not wind) for ozone layer depletion and eutrophication (the effect of nutrients such as phosphates, on natural ecosystems).
On the other hand, shale gas was worse than coal for three impacts:
- ozone layer depletion,
- summer smog and
- terrestrial eco-toxicity.
The study lead author, Professor Adisa Azapagic, said: “Some of the impacts of solar power are actually relatively high, so it is not a complete surprise that shale gas is better in a few cases. This is mainly because manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a country like the UK, as we don’t have as much sunshine. However, our research shows that the environmental impacts of shale gas can vary widely, depending on the assumptions for various parameters, including the composition and volume of the fracking fluid used, disposal routes for the drilling waste and the amount of shale gas that can be recovered from a well.
“Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas.”
The study further highlighted the need for a strict regulation of shale exploration. Weak regulations would increase the environmental impact of shale, making it comparable to that of coal and causing the UK to fail to meet climate change and sustainability targets.
Professor Azapagic added: “Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates.
“From the government policy perspective – focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security – it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.
“However, a wider view must also consider other aspects of widespread use of shale gas, including the impact on climate change, as well as many other environmental considerations addressed in our study. Ultimately, the environmental impacts from shale gas will depend on which options it is displacing and how tight the regulation is.”
Study co-author Dr Laurence Stamford, from Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, said: “Appropriate regulation should introduce stringent controls on the emissions from shale gas extraction and disposal of drilling waste. It should also discourage extraction from sites where there is little shale gas in order to avoid the high emissions associated with a low-output well.
He continued: “If shale gas is extracted under tight regulations and is reasonably cheap, there is no obvious reason, as yet, why it should not make some contribution to our energy mix. However, regulation should also ensure that investment in sustainable technologies is not reduced at the expense of shale gas.”
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