Shale gas one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity, study shows

Shale gas is one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity, according to research from a team at the University of Manchester.

The study considered the environmental, economic and social sustainability of shale gas in the UK and compared it to other electricity generating options. These were coal, nuclear, natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, hydro and biomass.

It found that out of the nine options, shale was the seventh least sustainable.

They rated each type against 18 sustainability indicators. Of these, 11 were environmental, three economic and four social. Examples of the indicators considered include climate change impacts, environmental pollution, costs of electricity, creation of jobs and public perceptions.

Ultimately, to become the most sustainable option, shale gas would need to achieve a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts and a 16-fold increase in employment.

The environmental and social sustainability of shale gas would also need to improve by up to 100 times for it to compete with domestic natural gas and imported LNG.

The UK government believes shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. It is “encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential”.

Despite significant opposition, extraction company Third Energy has finally started exploratory operations in Lancashire and last week said it was encouraged by the amount of gas potentially available. 

“Many countries are considering exploitation of shale gas, but its overall sustainability is disputed,” said Professor Adisa Azapagic, Manchester University.

“Previous studies focused mainly on environmental aspects of shale gas, largely in the US, with scant information on socio-economic aspects.

“To address this knowledge gap, our research - for the first time - looks not only at the environmental impacts but the economic and social aspects of shale gas as well.

“This enables us to evaluate its overall sustainability, rather than focusing on single issues, such as water pollution, traffic and noise, which have dominated the debate on shale gas so far.’

Whilst the current government and industry are keen to develop shale gas, Scotland has banned fracking, despite criticism from energy company Ineos. Strong opposition to fracking continues throughout the UK from numerous stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local residents and activists across the country.

The impacts on the environment from fracking are the main argument against the exploitation of shale gas, but supporters of fracking highlight improved national energy security and economic development as key benefits.

A study from last year found that electricity generated from coal could release between 10 and 100 times more toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water than that generated from natural gas extracted with fracking. 

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