Shale Gas claims place at Europe's energy table
As the EU’s main source of gas starts running out, the prospect of an interim energy solution that bridges the gap between the high-carbon oil and gas of yesterday and the renewable carbon-free energy of tomorrow could be here now: shale gas.
The discovery and exploitation of shale gas in North America has revolutionised the global gas market. Thanks to a new technology known as hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – the extraction of previously inaccessible or uneconomic shale gas became possible.
A decade ago the US was urgently building new terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) that it was predicted would be needed as its own conventional gas and imports failed to keep pace with demand. Shale gas changed all that. Today the US is poised to be a gas exporter.
A European revolution?
Now a similar revolution could be about to happen in Europe, providing a lower-carbon and greener alternative to coal power generation. London-based European gas consultant Nick Grealy sees shale gas as a viable interim low-carbon energy solution for Europe. It would also make carbon capture and storage (CCS) redundant.
“The US has shown that unconventional gas is a viable and economic energy solution,” says Mr Grealy. “It can be a solution for Europe in the same way and there is evidence that Europe has equally plentiful fields of gas deep underground.” But he also warns of potential opposition.
“We have seen lobbyists in the US talking about shale gas extraction potentially contaminating the water table,” he says. “The same arguments could now be used in Europe. Gazprom, US environmental groups, the nuclear power lobby, carbon capture and storage promoters are all saying that shale gas ‘isn’t green’,” he points out.
According to Mr Grealy, there is no evidence of shale gas operations, which happen more than 2,000 metres underground, contaminating the water table – normally located 200-300 metres below ground.
Shale gas sometimes pays the price, image-wise, of being associated with shale oil. But the technology is completely different. Mr Grealy suggests that shale gas production in Europe would be far less intrusive than people might think. Supporters of shale gas contend that CCS, with its unproven technology on a commercial scale and uncertain economics, is not a contender by comparison.
There is evidence of shale gas along an arc stretching from Poland, across the Baltic Sea, and through northern Germany, Holland and Britain. “US majors are working in Poland right now,” says Mr Grealy. “ExxonMobil, Chevron, Conoco Philips and Marathon all believe that Poland is potentially a new Klondike [gold-rush hub].”
Test drilling is taking place at a number of potential sites across Europe. They tend to be located close to where the gas is needed, making them more attractive because less transport is needed.
Europe is reaping the benefits of North America’s shale gas windfall with the easing of the LNG market: as the US needs to import less LNG, a global gas glut beckons.
Poland is currently planning to build an LNG terminal on its Baltic coast. It is perfectly possible that in a few years, if it has its own plentiful gas supplies, it could use such a terminal to export LNG gas to distant markets.
Changing the game
While in the last few years European energy analysts warned that the lights could go out as old coal power stations were made to shut down and old nuclear power stations reached the end of their life, shale gas could be a game-changer. BP chief executive Tony Hayward says that demand, not supply, is the key issue for Europe’s gas today.
Mr Hayward believes Europe’s future electricity generation lies with gas. He told the company’s AGM in London in April: “It makes sense to promote gas for power generation as it is the lowest-cost energy pathway. Gas is also easily the cleanest, lowest-carbon fossil fuel, and the most versatile.”
With the EU committed to carbon reduction, energy-efficiency and renewable energy targets for 2020, Europe needs to look at all the options it has – alongside offshore wind, wave power, solar and CCS – for generating low-carbon energy.
Nuclear generation for baseload electricity will remain an option, as France has shown for decades. Other European countries, including Britain and Italy, are planning a nuclear new-build programme – although this could take years to bear fruit.
Coal without CCS is perceived as the least environmentally friendly fossil fuel. This could spark another ‘dash for gas’ in the medium term. With non-EEA suppliers potentially raising reliability concerns, shale gas on Europe’s doorstep looks increasingly attractive.
Source: ENDS Europe