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Shale gas no panacea, U.N. report finds

Shale natural gas is a bridge fuel to a low-carbon economy, but it's still a fossil fuel that poses a risk to the global climate.

By Daniel J. Graeber
Shale natural gas is a viable bridge to a low-carbon economy, but it's still a fossil fuel, a U.N. agency reminds producers. File photo by Steve Oehlenschlager/Shutterstock
Shale natural gas is a viable bridge to a low-carbon economy, but it's still a fossil fuel, a U.N. agency reminds producers. File photo by Steve Oehlenschlager/Shutterstock

May 25 (UPI) -- Shale natural gas serves as a bridge to a low-carbon economy, but it's still a fossil fuel that could contribute to climate risks, a U.N. report round.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the world total of technically recoverable shale gas reserves is enough to meet 60 year's worth of total global consumption. About half of that total is in five countries, with the United States in the leadership position.

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U.S. President Donald Trump has put energy dominance at the top of a national security strategy. The United States became a net gas exporter last year. The super-cooled form of liquid gas, meanwhile, has the ability to increase U.S. leverage overseas by reaching markets typically fed by Russia.

The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development said natural gas could contribute to a "smooth transition" to a low-carbon economy because it emits 40 percent less carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than coal. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas. The main component of natural gas, however, is methane, which is far more potent than CO2.

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UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said shale gas is attractive now, but countries looking to capitalize on the resources should understand the pros and cons.

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"Climate change means that all countries must, as a matter of strategic urgency, move away from burning fossil fuels, including shale gas," he said in a statement.

The British economy is looking to capitalize on its shale gas assets as it tries to break away from foreign suppliers. Offshore wind, however, is a growing component of the British energy mix. The United States, for its part, is advancing offshore wind in Atlantic coastal states and the sector is evolving beyond the nascent stage.

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Beyond emissions, UNCTAD's report said hydraulic fracturing processes use large volumes of water and carries with it risks of groundwater of surface water contamination. A study from the U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, found the disposal of oil and gas-related wastewater is the "primary reason" for an increase in seismic activity in central states like Oklahoma. That process is different from hydraulic fracturing.

The USGS recorded a magnitude-3 tremor on central Oklahoma, home to much of the state's shale natural gas reserves, on Wednesday.

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