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Natural gas is neither perfect nor perfectly evil

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Alan Rogers/Casper Star-Tribune/AP/File

(Read caption) Workers join sections of pipe on a Trinidad Drilling natural gas drilling rig leased by Chesapeake Energy in Converse County north of Douglas, Wyo. A perfectly risk-free environment does not exist, Grealy writes, we can only do our best.

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Recent conversations with UK and European environmentalists lead me to think opposition to natural gas is not as monolithic, and that being so, as powerful as some fear, hope or believe depending on your point of view. We’ve seen several hints of that in the press, most tellingly a positive piece in the UK Guardian this weekend.  I would also commend both sides of the Economist debate on shale, recently concluded to a virtual dead heat.

The natural gas industry fears opposition. Too many companies are not being pro-active in promoting their product. Counter productively, some proponents of natural gas fall into the trap of thinking the natural gas revolution is a battle. It needs civilised discussion on all sides. This is especially so outside the United States, where natural gas resources belong to everyone via state control or ownership. Common ownership makes onshore gas different, but not worse, and in several ways it could provide an advantage. Accessing resources - or not - is a discussion for all stakeholders.

Coal, nuclear and Russia, amongst several others, hope that gas opponents, who they would often oppose themselves, will be able to stop or fatally delay shale gas in Europe. They could never be seen to be so crass as to have commercial interest themselves, but remain perfectly happy for other opponents to achieve their ends.  

Both governments and the investment community, supposedly disinterested but often invested financially if not emotionally in other solutions, are influenced to believe shale gas is so problematic it can have no immediate or near term effect. 

We need some things everyone can agree on. Some modest proposals:

  1. Energy efficiency is the best answer since no energy source is cleaner than energy not consumed.
  2. Overwhelming scientific evidence exists proving both climate change as real AND that properly regulated natural gas drilling can be carried out in a safe manner.
  3. Instead of arguing about the best forms of energy, lets agree on the worst. 
  4. The promoters of every form of energy are biased because someone makes money from every form of energy production.
  5. Every form of energy has some level of externalities and risks. We shouldn't be making the perfect the enemy of the good
  6. Regulation is better for everyone - especially the natural gas industry
  7. If we produce more energy locally, we can assure ourselves it is produced in safer conditions than might be possible in jurisdictions with regulations outside our influence.
  8. Locally produced energy, of whatever type, is secure energy consumers control.
  9. Access to affordable energy is a fundamental human right.
  10. We all live in our shared environment and we all benefit from thinking globally and acting locally to take care of it.

Notice that I don’t say shale gas. Shale gas is natural gas, “shale gas” is simply a new technique for accessing it. Looking back, a key mistake of the gas industry has been to lose control of the language. No wonder we then got so bad at the narrative itself. Describing recent developments in onshore natural gas as “unconventional” may be correct geologically but confusing in a narrative sense.  As unconventional becomes the dominant form of production, especially onshore Europe, using “unconventional” becomes increasingly pointless. “Unconventional“ signifies risks and fear to a public who have already lost faith in scientists, bankers, politicians, journalists, priests  - and it often appears, themselves.

“Shale” gas is again more technical information than most people need, but we completely lost control over the f word. It’s not possible to change that and start using the other f word  -fissuring- but we can make discussions more informed and polite - on both sides.

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A good place to begin is to promote the benefits of the product while we reassure about the process of producing it.  We’ve spent too much time talking about “unconventional” “shale” gas produced by “fracking” as a problem, not a benefit.

Promoting a product properly will make the blessings and virtues of it more evident so we can balance risks properly.

 Three places we can start are address some key misunderstandings: 

  1. Painting natural gas as simply another fossil fuel is making the perfect the enemy of the good. The best car in the world may be a Bentley or a Ferrari. That doesn’t mean the rest of us take the bus. This is not either/or. It’s both forms of energy acting in concert with each other.  Natural gas is not perfect. But it’s not perfectly evil either.
  2. Similarly, there are commonly held views, urban myths if you will, that Wind, Wave and Solar technologies are either possible today or are waiting around the corner. In this narrative, WWS is being disadvantaged by a campaign of the oil and gas industry to defeat them by suddenly removing the supply and security concerns that underpinned their development. Both sides need to get real. Renewable energy isn't a plot.  But the laws of physics point out that much needs to be done
  3. Much of the debate ignores the reality that electricity generation is only a third of gas use.  I've seen no credible plans to replace gas use in the heat sector.  Similarly, making natural gas disappear makes the chemical industry, and modern life, disappear too.

The current debate is polarized, but the middle is there to play for. The right often doubts climate change and sees shale gas as not only an energy solution, but also providing vindication for unconnected political agendas, which whether you share them or not, don’t appear to have won too many elections lately.  The Green Tea Party live in a similar echo-chamber that often brooks no debate over energy policy, has their own agendas and achieve similar levels of recent electoral success.  At least 80% are in the middle and don’t trust anyone. They are the pragmatists who are yet to be convinced, often because they need to have some reality injected into the debate.

There will be other disagreements and misunderstanding. Because simply put, a perfectly risk free environment does not exist. We can only do our best. This means the owners of the resource and the guardians of the environment. That’s all of us.


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