The crisis in Ukraine has thrown into sharp relief the importance of having a reliable supply of energy sources. Ukraine is completely dependent on Russia’s Gazprom for its gas supply, as are European Union members Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Czech Republic. Over all, the EU gets one-third of its gas supplies from Russia.
Desperate to lessen Gazprom’s stranglehold, Europe is now looking to liquefied natural gas from North Africa and the Middle East. But, as Canadians well know from the progress of British Columbia’s efforts to export LNG, these huge and costly projects take years to complete.
Failure to tap Europe’s shale-gas potential is helping Russian President Vladimir Putin keep a grip on his most powerful strategic lever. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The International Energy Agency estimates that Europe holds trillions of cubic metres of shale-gas potential. But opponents of the hydraulic fracturing technology needed to get at this energy source have persuaded some of the very countries that have highest potential to ban “fracking.” These include Germany and France, Europe’s two largest natural gas consumers, and Bulgaria, which is wholly dependent on Russian gas.
Europe’s anti-shale gas stance is also having an environmental impact. With its burgeoning natural gas supplies, the United States has been switching from coal power to cleaner-burning gas. This has sent large volumes of coal to the export market, with gas-challenged Europe as the main customer; U.S. coal exports have more than doubled since 2005, with European countries taking almost 60 per cent. So while replacement of coal with much cleaner natural gas has significantly improved the U.S. environment, the opposite is happening in Europe.
Europe isn’t the only fracking-phobic place, of course. Quebec continues its moratorium and New Brunswick has seen anti-shale gas protests. These fears were buoyed by a recent report from the Council of Canadian Academies that enumerates several things that could go wrong with fracking, such as a risk to potable groundwater. No evidence is presented that any damage has actually occurred, just that it might. This type of what-might-go-wrong analysis could be done for most industrial endeavours: Dams could burst and bridges could collapse if not properly engineered and built. But as one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report noted, over the past 60 years in the United States, “1.2 million wells have been hydraulically fractured without a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination.”
The Council of Canadian Academies report also states, “Because shale-gas development is at an early stage in Canada, there is still an opportunity to implement management measures.” Shale-gas hydraulic fracturing isn’t exactly at an early stage; it employs the same procedures used to unlock gas from other “tight” gas geological formations. (As an engineer in 1975, I directed the fracking of the first well drilled by the company that become Encana Corp. Since then, as I have noted before, Encana has safely fractured tens of thousands of natural-gas wells.)
Critics also allege that the amount of water used in fracturing the gas-bearing formations is depleting water supplies. Here again, EPA data for the United States is illuminating. While the 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water used each year in fracking might seem like a huge amount, it is less than the amount of water used in a single day for agricultural irrigation in that country. And for those who might think that corn-based ethanol is an environmentally superior alternative to shale gas, U.S. Department of Energy data show that it takes it takes only three gallons of water to produce one million BTUs of shale gas energy, compared with 15,000 gallons of water to produce the same amount of ethanol energy from irrigated corn.
Unlocking the enormous potential of shale gas can reduce the world’s consumption of oil and coal, while lowering energy costs and providing wider energy options to countries dependent on a single source. It can also benefit the environment by substantially lowering atmospheric emissions. It’s also benefiting the environment by substantially lowering atmospheric emissions. Groundswell, a new book by Ezra Levant, author of Ethical Oil, sets out the facts and dispels the myths about the technology that is making this possible. Countries that are endowed with shale gas resources should celebrate, not reject, their good fortune.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.
(Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated the correlation between water use and the production of shale gas energy and ethanol energy from irrigated corn.)