For all its enormous impact on global energy markets, the U.S. economy and global geopolitics, its sustainability and wider acceptance of the “shale revolution” – production of gas and tight oil from hydraulic fracturing – fracking remains an open question. Could it fizzle? What is the scenario for the future of shale?
Shale already accounts for nearly 40 percent of U.S. gas production – up from 2 percent a decade ago – and an IHS study projects it to rise to 75 percent by 2035. Not only is the shale revolution largely a U.S. phenomenon, but even in the U.S. only a modest portion of shale potential is being developed. Key potential sources of shale gas and tight oil plays in New York, California and Colorado fracking are banned or production is constrained.
Concerns about the environmental impact of fracking threaten both the longevity and the potential scope of the shale revolution in the U.S. and abroad. With sanctions against Russia likely to impact supply as well as spur a European hunt for alternative gas sources, shale gas can play an important role over time in reducing EU energy dependency on Russia. Moreover, expanding the shale revolution could yield important energy security and climate benefits due to natural gas’s potential as a bridging fuel, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions – if used instead of coal for electricity – in the interim until post-carbon options are more fully commercialized.
[GALLERY: Cartoons on Energy Policy]
Legitimate apprehension over methane leaks, methane flaring, water contamination and minor earthquakes triggered by reinjection of waste water for disposal still hover over the future of fracking. Ohio, for example, recently banned fracking in earthquake-prone areas. A number of recent studies suggest that the adoption of best practices by companies engaged in fracking have the capacity to ameliorate most reasonable concerns. This may be key to fully institutionalizing the shale revolution and perhaps getting euroskeptics to rethink their opposition to it.
A steady learning curve by state regulators in Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who shape the rules for fracking, burgeoning industry-environmentalist collaboration and continued improvements in technology together hold promise for elevating best practices to the status of new norms. Colorado, for example, has approved path-breaking controls on emissions from oil and natural gas (including methane), driven by efforts of a coalition of energy firms and NGO environmental groups. Perhaps not coincidentally, this action follows a move by five Colorado communities to ban fracking last November.
In Wyoming, as of March, a new set of regulations went into effect requiring oil and gas companies to test wells or springs within a half-mile of their drilling sites before and after drilling. The mandated rules include tests that measure a broad range of chemicals and methane. Another Wyoming regulation took effect last year requiring companies to monitor for air pollutants at oil and gas production sites and to fix any leaks