Gold rush or fools gold? Fracking and the ‘Golden Age of Gas’

Gold rush or fools gold? Fracking and the ‘Golden Age of Gas’

This week the International Energy Agency has published a report into the future of gas, with a focus on the controversial fracking method.

The report “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas,” declared aim is to pave the way for the widespread development of unconventional gas resources on a large scale, boosting overall gas supply and making the golden age of gas a reality, however notes there are legitimate public concerns about the associated environmental and social impacts.

I agree with Reuter’s John Kemp who says the IEA’s golden rules for gas are a missed opportunity because the report is mostly couched in vague principles so broad they are virtually meaningless. I mean, who could disagree with “treat water responsibly” and “ensure a consistently high level of environmental performance”?


In New Zealand, we have very little active regulation of fracking activities. Taranaki only started consenting the actual fracking activity last year after nearly two decades of fracking and there we’ve seen consents being breached and water contamination. It seems the Government is more interested in acting as an apologist for the industry than actually developing regulation to protect people and the environment.


The report also looks at the implications on climate change of a ‘golden age of gas’. The report notes that natural gas emits less CO2 than other fossil fuels, which could help other economies dependent on coal for electricity generation, however the bigger picture is more concerning. The report notes that even if we enter the ‘golden age of gas’ and considerably increase global consumption, emissions are still well above the trajectory required to reach the globally agreed goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C.

A Cornell University study found that gas sourced from fracked rock in the US could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal. Professor Robert Howarth says “The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil

In New Zealand we should put a moratorium on new fracking activities and instead focus on clean energy and clean-tech which is better for the economy and the environment.

8 Comments Posted

  1. Where, exactly, has there been a confirmed case of water contamination as a result of fracking? Because there’s been no confirmed cases in Taranaki. I hope you’re not referring to content in the US film Gasland, as this is rubbish-filled propaganda based on emotive anecdotes rather than science and facts. Here’s an interesting clip that proves Gasland’s director, Josh Fox, left out critical facts in his documentary.

    Seems to be a common theme among the anti-fracking/ anti-development crowd…

  2. One has to wonder who funds the ALL these studies. 🙂 It is certainly unusual for an advocacy group to have enough $ to fund one.

    I always discounted the emissions rates cited by Cornell, but I never discounted them so heavily as the paper cited by spam appears to do…

    An instance of dueling scientists now, and the correct rate of “fugitive emissions” for the current technology (which includes what industry has done to prevent their escape) will need to be measured.

    It may be better now than it was.

    …but that does not make Fracking the planet for oil and gas a good idea. We’ve taken the easy stuff, now we are injecting toxins deep underground in expectation that they won’t find their way into our fresh water aquifers (which we are also depleting at a ridiculous rate), and burning more carbon that was once locked deep underground.

    In the face of this…

    …and the truth is we can’t afford to burn all the gas we can get at any more than we can afford to burn the coal.

    Which means a whacking great CO2 tax and return has to be put in place and the industry HAS to be on notice that it is shutting down. In 30 years time the climate will be altered to the point where people armed with pitchforks and torches will shut it down.

    This is a place we cannot go for very long at all, if at all.

    A bad idea.

  3. We have the same debate in Ireland where fracking hasn’t been accepted yet. I’m afraid I’m one of those who is, logically or illogically, totally opposed to it. The process of fracking is a perfect symbol for rape of the earth..

  4. No David, not good at all given the fugitive emissions from the gas fields work out to make it no better than coal. If they did a better job of ensuring the gas was used rather than allowing it to escape, it would be better in that short run.

    Then there is the problem that Trevor explains, which is that substitution of one fossil fuel for another is not actually a solution, but more accurately another postponement, kicking the can down the road so that future generations face a worse problem with fewer resources.

    Overall, that is immoral and ethically bankrupt behaviour, and we do it all the time, not only in environmental contexts but also in finance. Those unpayable debts we saddle future generations with are not a feature of a SUSTAINABLE system.

  5. But then what happens when the gas runs out, just leaving the extra CO2 hanging in the air? Back to burning coal again? Better to invest in renewable power generation now and save the gas for use as a transport fuel until we have better alternatives for that too.


  6. Fracking has seen a huge drop in coal fired power stations output and strangely America has seen the biggest drop in greenhouse gas emissions in the world, it’s been quite incredible. Cheap gas has been great for our environment as a result of the fracking boom, shouldn’t the greens be happy about this as part of our move to a green e onomy. Not perfect but surely a step in the right direction.

  7. Not so much hypocritical, more the fairly usual failing we all suffer from to a degree, that of confirmation bias. We tend to be less critical of findings which support our own beliefs, and more critical of those which disagree with our basic tenets. Most of us suffer from this to a greater or lesser degree, it takes an especially rational thinker to be able to throw off the shackles of bias and evaluate opposing research on its merits.

  8. So for some balance, the study that Gareth cites has been slammed. It was authored by Robert Howarth who is described as an anti-fracking activist, funded by the Park Foundation (who have poured > $6 Million into anti-fracking lobbying).
    Reference 1

    Reference 2

    …and for people not wanting to just read a news article, then here is a reference of a study that points out just how crap Robert Howarth’s work is:
    Reference 3

    And an extract:
    Natural gas is widely considered to be an environmentally cleaner fuel than coal because it does not produce detrimental by-products such as sulfur, mercury, ash and particulates and because it provides twice the energy per unit of weight with half the carbon footprint during combustion. These points are not in dispute. However, in their recent publication in Climatic Change Letters, Howarth et al. (2011) report that their life-cycle evaluation of shale gas drilling suggests that shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than coal and that this larger footprint “undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades”. We argue here that their analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere. High leakage rates, a short methane GWP, and comparison in terms of heat content are the inappropriate bases upon which Howarth et al. ground their claim that gas could be twice as bad as coal in its greenhouse impact. Using more reasonable leakage rates and bases of comparison, shale gas has a GHG footprint that is half and perhaps a third that of coal.

    In fact, there are at least 5 studies that thoroughly debunk Howarth’s unscientific, advocacy piece. Considering that the Greens are the first to complain about research funded by ‘big oil’ as being tainted, don’t you think it’s slightly hypocritical to link to this advocacy piece as being scientific when it was funded by an anti-fracking lobby group?

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