The U.S. shale gas-led boom offers a lesson for Europe. In five years, the price of natural gas has halved in the United States and doubled in Britain. One result is an industrial renaissance in America. Along with the U.K., the rest of Europe could use the economic and political benefits of plentiful gas.
U.S. shale development has produced a glut that should keep the gas price at half the level in Europe for the foreseeable future while trimming electricity costs, according to a Boston Consulting Group report published last week. The boost to petrochemical and other factory output could translate into a smaller U.S. trade deficit and as many as five million jobs by 2020, BCG reckons.
Achieving something similar ought to be tempting for policy-makers in Europe. Yet so far, France and Bulgaria have banned fracking and the British government has yet to give the technique its full approval.
Meanwhile conventional production of gas is sliding. The EU already imports half what it consumes, and that number is on track to rise to 75 per cent by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency. That means a growing reliance on foreign liquefied natural gas – which is expensive due to the cost of processing and transporting it – and supplies by pipeline from Russia, which will boost the political influence of Vladimir Putin and his successors.
Opening the doors to fracking in Europe could change that. The region's shale reserves, so far, are about 30 per cent as large as those of the United States, according to the IEA – equivalent to about three decades of current consumption. And the U.S. and EU economies are, broadly speaking, similar in size, as are their gas needs.
From a near standing start in about 2005, the United States now produces almost a third of its gas from shale. The domestic price of the fuel has fallen to around $3 (U.S.) per million British thermal units from roughly $10 then. Coincidentally, the higher level is about where European prices are now.
That shows the scope for shale gas to change energy prices in Europe, even if smaller reserves might have somewhat less of an impact than in the United States. If EU governments care about the global competitiveness of their industries, their approach to fracking needs a rethink.