The much-heralded shale gas revolution is in danger of grinding to a halt unless operators adopt tougher environmental standards, the International Energy Agency is warning.
Exploiting the world’s vast resources of unconventional natural gas holds the key to a golden age of gas, it says, but for that to happen governments, industry and other stakeholders must work together to address legitimate public concerns about the associated environmental and social impacts.
“The technology and the know-how already exist for unconventional gas to be produced in an environmentally acceptable way,” IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said at the launch of the organisation’s report ‘Golden rules for a golden age of gas.’ “But if the social and environmental impacts are not addressed properly, there is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks. The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance; governments must ensure that appropriate policies and regulatory regimes are in place.”
Of prime importance, according to the report, are full transparency, measuring and monitoring of environmental impacts and engagement with local communities. Drilling sites must be carefully chosen, with measures to prevent any leaks from wells into nearby aquifers, as well as rigorous assessment and monitoring of water requirements and of waste water, measures to target zero venting and minimal flaring of gas and improved project planning and regulatory control.
At their recent Camp David summit, leaders of the G8 nations welcomed and agreed to review this IEA work. “To build on the Golden Rules, we are establishing a high-level platform so that governments can share insights on the policy and regulatory action that can accompany an expansion in unconventional gas production, shale gas in particular,” van der Hoeven added. “This platform will be open to IEA members and non-members alike.”
However compliance would come at a cost, admitted IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, the report’s lead author. “If this new industry is to prosper, it needs to earn and maintain its social licence to operate,” he said. “This comes with a financial cost, but in our estimation the additional costs are likely to be limited.”