Shale Gas: Game Changer = Planet Breaker?

With stories such as this and this becoming more common, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would show why energy security is no longer a winning issue for climate change advocates. Today, Michael Lind makes the case in Salon:

As everyone who follows news about energy knows by now, in the last decade the technique of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” long used in the oil industry, has evolved to permit energy companies to access reserves of previously-unrecoverable “shale gas” or unconventional natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, these advances mean there is at least six times as much recoverable natural gas today as there was a decade ago.

Natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal, can be used in both electricity generation and as a fuel for automobiles.

The implications for energy security are startling. Natural gas may be only the beginning. Fracking also permits the extraction of previously-unrecoverable “tight oil,” thereby postponing the day when the world runs out of petroleum. There is enough coal to produce energy for centuries. And governments, universities and corporations in the U.S., Canada, Japan and other countries are studying ways to obtain energy from gas hydrates, which mix methane with ice in high-density formations under the seafloor. The potential energy in gas hydrates may equal that of all other fossils, including other forms of natural gas, combined.

This is all fairly mind-blowing, and is sure to scramble global warming politics and policy. Here’s Lind sketching out the big picture:

If gas hydrates as well as shale gas, tight oil, oil sands and other unconventional sources can be tapped at reasonable cost, then the global energy picture looks radically different than it did only a few years ago. Suddenly it appears that there may be enough accessible hydrocarbons to power industrial civilization for centuries, if not millennia, to come.

So much for the specter of depletion, as a reason to adopt renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind power. Whatever may be the case with Peak Oil in particular, the date of Peak Fossil Fuels has been pushed indefinitely into the future. What about national security as a reason to switch to renewable energy?

The U.S., Canada and Mexico, it turns out, are sitting on oceans of recoverable natural gas. Shale gas is combined with recoverable oil in the Bakken “play” along the U.S.-Canadian border and the Eagle Ford play in Texas. The shale gas reserves of China turn out to be enormous, too. Other countries with now-accessible natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. government, include Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, France, Poland and India.

Because shale gas reserves are so widespread, the potential for blackmail by Middle Eastern producers and Russia will diminish over time. Unless opponents of fracking shut down gas production in Europe, a European Union with its own natural gas reserves will be far less subject to blackmail by Russia (whose state monopoly Gazprom has opportunistically echoed western Greens in warning of the dangers of fracking).

The U.S. may become a major exporter of natural gas to China — at least until China borrows the technology to extract its own vast gas reserves.

The bottom line, according to Lind:

Two arguments for switching to renewable energy — the depletion of fossil fuels and national security — are no longer plausible.

Now that is a game changer.

16 Responses to “Shale Gas: Game Changer = Planet Breaker?”

  1. kdk33 says:

    Game changer?  Yep.

    Now if we could only get at ANWR.

  2. thingsbreak says:

    I have to say that I’m incredibly puzzled by your framing of this, Keith, e.g.:
    “I  knew it was only a matter of time before someone would show why energy security is no longer a winning issue for climate change advocates” and “Now that is a game changer”.
    It was pointed out to you repeatedly during your breakthrough cheer-leading that energy policies decoupled from climate concerns would not end up addressing climate concerns.
    In addition to unconventionals, coal liquefaction and corn ethanol are “energy security/independence” possibilities that make no sense from a climatic standpoint, the latter ostensibly a renewable resource as well.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    My Breakthrough cheerleading? You want to point anything in particular I said that sounds like cheerleading?

    So who pointed out that energy policies decoupled from energy concerns would not end up addressing climate concerns–and what was the context? Were you or anyone else making that argument, saying that bountiful reserves of fossil fuels would very soon be cheaply accessible, rendering the “energy security” angle impotent? Because if you were saying that, I’ll do a mea culpa.

    Additionally, the outlines of the shale gas revolution-and its implications–have only become truly apparent in recent months. It’s still unclear if this revolution will live up to its hype, but it’s looking increasingly likely. The fact that this is a worldwide phenomenon and not just limited to the U.S. is also important in the context of climate policy and politics.

  4. Bob Koss says:

    “climate change advocates”
    I cringe every time I see that phrase used, so this time I’m going to comment on it. Your site isn’t the only offender.
    Your usage is understood by the regular participants here, but when John and Suzy Q. Public happen across this blog it can easily result in a failure to communicate.
    John and Suzy just might think you are talking about people who  advocate altering the climate. If they realize global warming and climate change are quite often used interchangeably, they might even come to the conclusion you are talking about people who advocate warming the world. They may derive your actual meaning from reading further to gain more context, but they may give up right there in utter confusion. I know that isn’t your intent, but it can certainly happen.
    I suggest you consider coming up with some other phrasing to remove the ambiguity in future posts, even if it results in a longer description.

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Bob, I’m open to suggestions, as I’ve never been happy with the phrase “climate advocates.”

  6. Sashka says:

    @ TB

    Whoever said what in the past is not that interesting (to me at least). The interesting point that Keith is making is that it’s a game changer. I’d guess he was inviting intelligent comments on that.

  7. Marlowe Johnson says:

    You’re right that the shale gas play is a recent development and has a number of implications for the energy security/climate change nexus.  I also think that many of us (myself included) have warned of the dangers of ‘big tent’ strategies that don’t give some primacy to climate change concerns.  This is what TB is referring to I think.
    With that out of the way, let me suggest that the impact of shale gas isn’t necessarily as bad for climate change as some might think (the recent NETL study on LCA notwithstanding).  If the play is as successful as many suggest, then it puts a serious dent in the prospects for new coal fired generation in many locations, particularly the U.S., where the costs for conventional pollutant controls and the risk of CO2 controls come into play.  Feel free to chime in Harrywr2 :).

  8. Dean says:

    I think that Peak Oil has always been more about the end of cheap oil than the end of oil. Will these new technologies mean that a gallon of gas in the US will move towards the price of petrol in countries that force the price higher? If so, there will still be big changes here. But I’ve never felt that the peak issues were a likely motivator re climate issues.

  9. Keith Kloor says:


    Oh, okay, that makes sense (about the big tent criticism).

    Also, fascatining observation about the shale gas/coal implications. I wasn’t aware of that. Boy, this debate is about to get even more interesting. 🙂

  10. Even under somewhat pessimistic leakage scenarios, using shale gas for baseload generation instead of coal will lead to a considerable reduction in carbon:
    Given the high cost and intermittency issues with the current generation of renewables, I’d suggest that shale gas will result in a net reduction in electric sector emissions vs. business as usual. If costs far fall enough, it will also be much easier to push for the decommissioning of older coal fired power plants, some of which have been running for 50 years (or more!) at this point.

  11. Keith Kloor says:


    I found your Yale Forum analysis quite helpful.

  12. I made things’ point in #2 above to Keith offline and concur.
    For Zeke, what are the limits of the “somewhat pessimistic leakage scenarios”?

    We really don’t have a long history of this technology. Fracturing obviously gives longer and tighter but more paths for the gas to migrate. How sure are we that these sites will not leak methane long past the time when they are out of production?

    Is the isotopic signature of the recent methane spike consistent with a fossil source?

  13. Bob Koss says:

    Re: my #4 and your #5.
    I’m no word smith, but here are some suggestions. Any of which would be more accurate and informative than writing climate change advocates.
    co2 reduction/limitation supporters/advocates/proponents.
    temperature reduction/limitation supporters/advocates/proponents.
    Do not replace co2 with the word carbon unless you also append dioxide.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    Worrier Class ?

  15. Barry Woods says:

    man made climate change advocates…  !?

  16. kdk33 says:


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