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The impact of shale exploration on the environment has to be assessed in the context of and in comparison with other energy sources. We must balance the pros and cons, the costs and benefits. Natural gas falls into the low risk category.

Jobs or environmental risks?

That’s the either/or way in which Cuadrilla Resources’ shale gas discovery in Lancashire was being depicted by media in the UK, according to Benny Peiser, Director of the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, who spoke at the European Unconventional Gas Summit in Krakow, Poland.

Mr. Peiser himself was actually interviewed as part of the BBC coverage that he showed to delegates at the conference.

The newscaster called the shale gas find the “best news northwest has had for 30 years,” yet the report showed a mix of skepticism and excitement, including the ubiquitous Gasland footage of flaming taps. One pub regular in the area called the new gas source “pie in the sky.”

“The technology has a long track record,” Mr. Peiser told the news anchor of hydraulic fracturing. “A Parliamentary committee has looked at risk and said it was very small indeed. This is a huge potential boost to the economy in the Northwest. People have to balance their concerns, read up and educate themselves on the technology to know that the potential risk is very small.”

At the end of the TV report, he pointed out that it was half the emissions of coal and cheap gas would reduce electricity and gas prices right away.

Of the UK shale gas he told the audience in Krakow: “We have a situation with a huge find and it is typical for areas, like there in the UK, to go for it. Will the UK coalition give the green light to shale?”

He pondered why there was so much opposition to an energy source that was comparatively clean.

“We have to put shale in the context of other energy sources in order to convey a comparative analysis of the environmental impact,” explained Peiser. “People forget the environmental costs of coal mining or oil exploration; nuclear also has its own risks.”

Renewable forms of energy also had an impact, he pointed out, like the pollution by solar panel manufacturers in China or what windmills do to a landscape and to birds.

“We must balance the pros and cons, the costs and benefits. Natural gas must undergo this to understand that it is a form of energy that falls in the low risk category,” he said.

According to Mr. Peiser, there were surprising issues surrounding natural gas.

He said, “The environmentalists supported it initially and were all in favor, because they saw natural gas as a bridge fuel to a low carbon economy. The pragmatic argument was that natural gas could solve a lot of problems, and it was a natural evolution of the overall trend of decarbonization of the global economy.”

He said environmentalists were allies of natural gas, “until they realized there was a problem that investment into renewables was beginning to dry up. Cheap and abundant gas would compete with renewables and once the shale glut emerged, the sector dived.”

Other vested interests had also raised concerns, according to Peiser.

“If Gazprom comes along and raises environmental concerns about shale, you know it’s not the real agenda.”

The key argument he said was that many of the environmental arguments were pushed for other concerns.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “the arguments advanced by green campaigners need to be addressed, fully and squarely. It’s not difficult because natural gas has so much in favor that it’s easy to counter a lot of the myths and scares.”

Key objections he listed were use of chemicals in the fracking process, that gas could escape from underground and into the water table, and waste water returning.

“All of these arguments have to be tackled. If you look into them, the environmentalists cherry pick the results they like and ignore opposing and contrasting results. It is important to point out that most of the arguments are really not up to the research and empirical evidence provided in the latest peer reviewed literature,” contended Mr. Peiser.

He showed a slide of the flaming taps a la Gasland, commenting: “The good news is you can analyze and identify where this gas is coming from. Most people don’t know that the gas in the film had nothing to do with unconventional gas. I really believe the most important message is that people have to educate themselves.”

“Tell them ‘you should read up, educate yourself and you’ll find a lot of the claims are untrue or exaggerated.’”

There was an interesting development in recent months, according to him, regarding the concerns over hydraulic fracturing.

“Even environmental agencies that are clearly advocating climate and green policies – who’ve had enquiries set up – most have come up with a clear view that these problems are not significant if properly regulated.”

He reported that the UK Parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Committee had even come out with a very realistic, balanced and accurate assessment of shale gas production and had concluded that there were no different issues encountered when exploring for hydrocarbons in shale.

Mr. Peiser added he didn’t think any education was necessary regarding wastewater.

“Like any industry process the water is treated. If you look at each individual injection, the impact is of insignificant relevance to environmental issues.”

Wastewater, he said, was treated by industries and manufacturers. Accidents, if they happened, didn’t have a big impact like an oil spill.

And what about comparing shale gas drilling with coal mining, oil or wind farms?

“Every form of energy has an impact,” said Peiser. “The challenge is to put shale gas in the context of other forms of energy.”

He contended that the greens were now desperate, because every argument they had advanced had been debunked.

Peiser said, “Let me conclude: Can the green lobby win this argument over environmental objections? I don’t think it can. Ten or 20 years ago it could have won when governments were willing to burn billions, but the economic climate has changed, we’re facing the biggest crisis in decades. No government in the world would give up this opportunity, not even the British government, which is very green indeed.”

“I don’t think they have a leg to stand on when it comes to shale,” he said of environmentalists. “People will realize that this energy is far less impacting on environments than most other forms of energy. Even wind farms are much more opposed than coal or nuclear power plants.

“Shale shouldn’t have any big problem and in all likelihood the government will grasp it with both hands,” ended Mr. Peiser. “I cannot foresee a situation where Europe will forgo this golden opportunity.”

Editor’s note: Dr Peiser will be speaking on The shale gas revolution and its impact on UK and EU climate policy at the Shale Gas Environmental Summit, London 2 November 2011