At a time when fracking and other associated environmental impacts from shale gas prospecting is in the limelight, especially in the UK, a study from University of Manchester suggests that with appropriate regulations in place, shale gas is a good option for the country as it can be extracted at reasonable cost and offers some advantages over solar and wind energy.
While emissions and other lifecycle impacts from shale gas are comparable to that from natural gas, the research found that shale gas was better than offshore wind and solar on four out of 11 counts: depletion of natural resources, toxicity to humans, as well as the impact on freshwater and marine organisms.
Shale gas emerged better than solar (but not wind) for ozone layer depletion and eutrophication (the effect of nutrients such as phosphates, on natural ecosystems).
However, shale gas was worse than coal for three impacts: ozone layer depletion, summer smog and terrestrial eco-toxicity.
The authors say their results highlight the need for tight regulation of shale gas exploration as weak regulation may result in shale gas having higher impacts than coal power, resulting in a failure to meet climate change and sustainability imperatives.
Their research has just been published in the leading academic journal Applied Energy.
The impacts of shale gas depend on what form of energy it replaces, the study notes. It says that the environmental impacts of shale gas can vary widely, depending on the assumptions for various parameters, including the composition and volume of the fracking fluid used, disposal routes for the drilling waste and the amount of shale gas that can be recovered from a well.
"Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas," the research notes.
The UK holds enough shale gas to supply its entire gas demand for 470 years, but for many, including climate scientists and environmental groups, shale gas exploitation is viewed as environmentally dangerous and would result in the UK reneging on its greenhouse gas reduction obligations under the Climate Change Act.