Goldwashing natural gas?

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Leila Mulloy

A controversial set of “golden rules” for fracking could boost global gas demand by 50% by 2035 if adopted, making natural gas the world’s second biggest energy source, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said.

The past decade has seen a surge in natural-gas extraction, particularly in the United States where a shale-gas boom has pushed prices to a 10-year low. The success of the US experience, combined with concerns about energy security and rising global prices, has sparked widespread interest in unconventional gas extraction.

However, the process known as fracking (or “hydraulic fracturing”), in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into shale, for example, to release gases trapped in the rock has prompted strong opposition from environmental campaigners. Concerns include groundwater contamination, migration of chemicals to the surface, methane leakage and even increased earthquake risk. Public opposition has led to outright bans on fracking in France and Bulgaria, while campaign groups are urging similar action in the United States and United Kingdom.

Now the IEA has triggered a fresh round of discussion with its report “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas”, published late last month, which sets out guidelines for minimising the environmental impact of extraction. These rules include:

*  Full transparency in drilling practices and methods
*  Accurate measurement, monitoring and control of environmental impacts
*  Careful selection of drilling sites
*  Improved regulatory control
*  Robust well design and improved testing to prevent leaks
*  Minimisation of flaring and emissions leakage

The US Environmental Protection Agency welcomed the report, which has also won praise within the fossil-fuel industry. But others are less convinced.

Critics allege the rules lack substance and are more concerned with industry image than specific practice improvements. Friends of the Earth said the fossil-fuel industry was “attempting to give gas a veneer of gold”, while The Economic Times of India called the rules vague to the point of being “virtually meaningless”.  In the Chinese case, this vagueness is of particular concern, given the country’s prime gas reserves are located in earthquake-prone Sichuan and the water-scarce north west.

Allegations that the IEA is greenwashing, or “goldwashing” fracking follow complaints that fossil-fuel lobbyists are falsely promoting unconventional gases as a green alternative to renewables. The IEA itself has not sought to offer up fracking as a climate-change fix. Faith Birol, chief author of the “golden rules” report, admitted natural gas is “no panacea” for climate change, while his study concedes the “golden age for gas” scenario could see temperatures rise by 3.5 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial temperatures), well above the globally agreed target of 2 degrees. Meeting that goal will require a “much more substantial shift in global energy use” than can be offered by natural gas, the report says.

So it’s clear that the IEA’s predicted trajectory of natural-gas expansion has profound implications for the climate. Even if the “golden rules” can minimise the immediate environmental impacts of natural-gas extraction – and not everyone believes they can – we still need to ask ourselves if this is the right development path to pursue.

This article is translated and published here as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.