Golden age for gas could be dark age for the environment
by Antoine Simon
European politicians and officials seem to be accepting the 'goldwashing' of shale gas that is coming from the fossil fuel industry – argues pressure group
Last week, the International Energy Agency presented its long awaited report on the future of shale gas. The document sets out seven key rules for industry that will herald a "golden age of gas". In reality, a European energy future based on gas would be far from golden. Whether industry adheres to the golden rules or not, shale gas will lead Europe into a dark age for the environment in which only the gas industry stands to profit.
European decision makers are being openly confronted with the fossil fuel industry's spin. The European Union is committed to move to a low-carbon economy and has agreed to almost full decarbonisation of the power sector by 2050. Development of unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas contradict these commitments and ridicule Europe's vision. Industry is attempting to give gas, including unconventional shale gas, a veneer of gold. You could call it the new greenwashing. There is no scientific agreement that the lifecycle greenhouse emissions of shale gas will be significantly lower compared to other conventional fossil fuels; even the most carbon-intensive ones like coal - some evidence even indicates that emissions could be higher. Giving the green light to gas development simply locks the EU into continued dependency on fossil fuels at the expense of renewables, energy saving and significant reductions in emissions.
The IEA itself admits that the rules in its report will do little to address climate change, stating: "The golden rules case - for an alleged 'safe and sustainable' development of the shale gas industry - puts CO2 emissions on a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target." The chief economist of the IEA, Dr Fatih Birol admitted that the organisation was "not saying that it would be a golden age for humanity - we are saying it will be a golden age for gas". Additionally doubts remain about the risks of fracking-related water contamination and air and soil pollution. The long-term health impacts of large-scale shale gas extraction are not addressed by the IEA. The toxic chemicals used for fracking, along with the hazardous and radioactive materials naturally present underground and smog particulates, and other pollutants released during the process, can contaminate surface and groundwater and pollute the air and soil; seriously threatening human health.
The seven non-binding rules in the report intend to address some of the known issues related to shale gas development and fracking, but they are based predominantly on technologies which are either unproven - 'green' fracking fluid that supposedly reduces water contamination - or will not be ready until at least 2035. For example, carbon capture and storage technologies. Is Europe really ready to impose such a dangerous experiment on both the health of its citizens and the environment?
The 'goldwashing' of gas seems to have convinced some. The European Commission recently yielded to pressure from the gas lobby and will now consider gas as low carbon energy in the framework of its Horizon 2020 research and development programme. Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger recently declared that gas was "an ideal partner for renewables". Last month, two draft reports on shale gas were presented to two different European Parliament committees. Both either omitted or minimised the risks and negative impacts of fracking and replaced them with overly optimistic industry assessments. This is characteristic of the industry-driven shale gas debate at the European level.
The environmental and economic realities of shale gas are constantly overlooked at the European level, but this is not the case on the ground. Citizen groups, who recognise that shale gas poses a serious threat to both local communities and the environment have formed across Europe - with bans on fracking already in place in France and Bulgaria, moratoria in regions of Germany and Switzerland and in the Netherlands. Even investors in fossil fuels such as the Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, traditionally supportive of the energy industry, warn that shale gas is a heavily carbon-intensive alternative. The golden gloss of gas is only a veneer. Europe must call gas by its real name - a fossil fuel. It must recognise shale gas for what it is – a dangerous experiment on people and planet. To decarbonise its economy, Europe must embrace a 'golden low-carbon age' based on renewable energy and improved energy savings as soon as possible.
Antoine Simon is extractive industries campaigner for the Friends of the Earth Europe campaign group
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You people seem incapable of understanding that wind power is a misnomer. If you're lucky, you may achieve 30 per cent of the potential power from a turbine, when it's actually turning. When there's no wind, a back-up system has to be deployed to make up the shortfall. The only way to do this is via a fast-response power station; this means gas generation. No other system can bring power on-line quick enough.
Do you honestly suggest that the majority of our existing generation capability can be replaced by renewables? Are you asking the peoples of the UK and Europe to put up with an intermittent power supply? If you expect us to convert completely to renewables, then please give us a competent argument that rationalises the collapse of Europe's economy; because that's where this suicidal approach will lead us.
Peter FM - England