Supported by governments and floating on a raft of dubious claims, shale gas is the new global fossil fuel of choice for the corporations.
Explorations are taking place across the world, including deposits that would in the past have been economically unviable. Rising gas prices and new extraction methods have brought vast new areas into play and the energy corporations smell profits.
They are charming governments with claims of freedom from dependence on imported oil and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without all the bother of developing renewable energy sources or looking to reduce consumption.
But their claims are extremely dubious. For example, the European Gas Advocacy Forum paid McKinsey to rework base data from a European Climate Foundation (ECF) report, to show that shale gas is the way to go for emissions reductions.
The ECF is furious at this manipulation of their data. Its report had in fact shown that the best and most sustainable way to reduce emissions is by urgently developing a low-carbon generation network and moving away from fossil fuels altogether.
And a report from Cornell University shows that far from reducing carbon emissions, it could be as damaging as burning coal. Natural gas is mostly methane, and researchers found that between 3.6% and 7.9% of the methane was released into the atmosphere in the course of production. Methane emissions are between 30% and 50% higher than from conventional gas.
There are also environmental and health risks associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking". This involves drilling a hole deep into the dense layer of shale rocks and then pumping in at very high pressure vast quantities of water mixed with sand and highly toxic chemicals to release the gas.
Communities near production facilities in the US report respiratory problems, and polluted water supplies. In the award-winning documentary
Gasland, people are shown setting light to the water from their tap.
The Cameron government has turned down a request for a moratorium on shale gas extraction from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. It said that Cuadrilla, the firm involved, “has made it clear that there is no likelihood of environmental damage and that it is applying technical expertise and exercising the utmost care as it takes drilling and testing forward”. The phrase “well they would say that, wouldn’t they” springs to mind.
Cuadrilla is working on two sites near Blackpool, and has permission to explore four more. Bridgend-based Coastal Oil and Gas is exploring sites in Wales. The Scottish midlands are said to hold the shale deposits with the greatest potential.
Protests have halted developments in the south of France, but in Poland, credited with Europe’s largest shale gas deposits, ConocoPhillips is poised to start drilling next month near Gdansk on the Baltic coast.
Based on projections that China may be sitting on 30 trillion cubic metres of shale gas reserves, the Chinese government is rushing ahead, and says it will begin production in 2015 to deliver 10% of the country’s energy by 2020.
It’s nothing short of a new profit-driven global bonanza which can entirely derail development of renewable energy sources and tie human society into fossil fuels for a further two or three generations. As long as the corporations remain in control of our energy future, this will be the continuing disastrous reality.