BOULDER, Colorado — Since 2007, the United States has been using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from shale rock formations underground. The boom in natural gas has saved Americans money at the gas pumps, created jobs and largely eliminated the need to import foreign oil.
Natural gas has replaced coal as a fuel for power plants, contributing to the four percent drop in fossil fuel emissions in the U.S. since 2012.
China, currently the world’s largest emitter of green house gases, is also home to the world’s largest deposits for shale gas reserves. Estimates suggest that the rapidly developing country might be sitting on around 212 billion barrels of oil. Now, China has announced that it will boost natural gas from four percent of the energy mix to 10 percent by 2020.
As Joe Kiesecker put it, “the potential of this to drive land use change into industrial shale gas production is huge. This is a potential global footprint.”
Kiesecker is the lead scientist on the Nature Conservancy’s Development by Design Program. The program recognizes the growing interest in natural gas development and works with developers and governments, including projects in China, to minimize the impacts of natural gas extraction on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Like any development project, hydraulic fracturing creates an impact. Natural gas is trapped underground, inside of shale rock formations. In order to extract the gas, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected into wells as deep as 10,000 feet below ground surface. The high pressure of the water mixture creates cracks in the rock. These cracks are held open by the sand in the mixture, allowing natural gas to escape up and out of the well.
Natural gas is considered better for the global climate because it produces far less CO2 than coal or conventional oil when burned.
In China, where one to three new coal fired power plants are being constructed every month, the potential to reduce CO2 emissions is huge. “The atmosphere in China because of the use of coal is dreadful,” said Terry Engelder, a Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. “Replacing coal with natural gas or renewables gets a lot of that particulate matter out of the atmosphere.”
Less particulate matter would be good for the health of China’s citizens as well as for the global climate. Every year the Chinese government spends billions on healthcare related to pollution, according to a study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology .
Further, Engelder suggests that China’s poor will benefit from the development of natural gas as they have in the U.S. One way this happens is through the creation of jobs. “The lower the unemployment, the better able the country is to take care if its poor,” he said. “Air quality; water issues; I think some people who are activists have overblown these issues in their mind,” Engelder added.
But, Kiesecker is not so sure. “I think that the science is still out,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of science that needs to be done to answer that question.”
A fracking well pad requires two million to four million gallons of water, compared to the couple hundred gallons or less involved in a conventional oil operation. In China, most of the big deposits are located in arid areas where water is scarce. “It’s a rural environment where people depend on wells and surface water. There’s that potential for conflict between development and drinking water resources,” said Kiesecker.
There is also concern about the storage of water after it is used in fracking. “The water can, in some cases, be laden with methane, and the methane can evaporate out in the holding ponds,” Kiesecker said. Methane is a greenhouse gas that it is 34 times more powerful than CO2 according to the IPCC. It remains to be seen whether methane leakage can be avoided if best practices are used, or if it is an inherent part of natural gas extraction.
Until recently, countries outside of the U.S. have been slow to develop their natural gas reserves. This has been due to a number of factors, including a lack of infrastructure, property and mineral rights that do not facilitate natural gas extraction. However, that is about to change.
According to data compiled by an oil service company Baker Hughes, 400 shale wells may be drilled abroad in 2014. Most of the activity is likely to be in China and Russia, but fracking will also begin in the United Kingdom and Argentina.
Looking at global population estimates, a growth in fracking seems inevitable. Right now, the global population is on track to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, according to the U.N. More people will mean a demand for more of everything from food and consumer goods to energy. In addition to the increase in population, “we’re moving more people from well below the poverty line to a middle class status,” said Kiesecker, which means even more resource demand.
So how to meet this demand?
“Coal fired power will be phased out, and the sooner the better because of the global climate problem,” said Engelder. “Renewable energy should be ramped up as rapidly as possible.”
Even if coal is phased out, it may not be enough to avoid massive climate change. And climate change will usually hit the poorest the hardest, because they are less likely to have the resources to adapt to changes. “It definitely remains to be seen whether people can come together to make drastic reductions in how much energy we consume and drastic improvements in fuels and energy,” said Kiesecker.
– Claire Karban
Sources: Washington Post, Business Week, Scientific American, Pro Publica, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Forbes, United Nations