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Energy Agency Looks to Natural Gas “Golden Age”

WASHINGTON, May 30 2012 (IPS) - If a series of “golden rules” can be followed, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests, global natural gas usage could grow by more than 50 percent by 2035.
The report, released on Tuesday, came under sharp criticism from environmental groups for charting a route to a “golden age” in the extraction and use of natural gas.

As governments around the world are barraged with new applications for exploiting gas deposits, the full implementation of these recommendations could indeed lead to far greater oversight and lessened environmental impact. 

However, only very late in the report does the IEA, a Paris-based intergovernmental organisation, note that such use could lead to a rise in world temperatures “of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius … well above the widely accepted 2 (degree Celsius) target” set by the United Nations.

Although the report does warn that the future of “unconventional” forms of natural gas would be significantly hindered if environmental concerns are not directly addressed, advocacy groups are warning that the IEA should not be focusing attention on increased fossil fuel consumption at this time.

“Drilling for shale and other unconventional gas would put the world on course for catastrophic climate change – incomprehensible when we have clean energy solutions at our fingertips like wind and solar power,” said Tony Bosworth, with Friends of the Earth.

“Our changing climate is already leaving millions hungry, destroying wildlife and costing our own economy billions – more fossil fuels will just make that worse.”

Much has been made of the unexpected boom in natural gas production in recent years, brought about by new technologies able to “liberate” gases trapped in geological formations, such as shale.

One of the most efficient but notorious of these technologies, hydrological fracturing or “fracking”, sees operators inject thousands of pounds of water and a slew of chemicals into the ground. Widespread reports have suggested that, depending on the rock formations in the area, those chemicals can poison underground aquifers, though the industry denies this.

These and other technologies have led to a glut of natural gas internationally, driven in particular by the United States. Since 2000, the production of “shale gas” has increased 12-fold in the United States, which has since begun exporting to the rest of the world.

Natural gas burns far cleaner than oil or coal, releasing about half the carbon of the latter. It is generally seen as one of the cleanest of available energy alternatives other than renewables.

Still, the extraction of shale gas does pose significant risks to local environments, while its burning and processing continues to contribute to global warming. While the IEA report outlines several “golden rules” aimed at mitigating local impacts, critics highlight that it has notably little to say about the broader ramifications of climate change.

“The entire theme of the report is to promote drilling, with more responsibility yielding higher returns in the end,” Kyle Ash, a Greenpeace campaigner, told IPS. “And yet it still acknowledges that we need to better understand the impacts, develop better oversight, and implement effective regulatory regimes – this is the opposite of the precautionary approach.”

Indeed, the two dozen rules outlined by the IEA place a significant emphasis on strict regulation, potentially placing too much responsibility on government action and industry compliance.

In the U.S. scenario, the report “presumes that federal regulatory loopholes can be closed”, Ash notes. “In fact, most of these loopholes originated in legislation in the first place.”

Still, some suggest that the IEA should be given credit for putting forward a list of regulations necessary if natural gas is to play a central role in overhauling the energy mix in countries around the world – including making renewables more feasible.

“We have an opportunity for natural gas to address the intermittency problems of renewable energy sources – it could become an ally of renewables,” Alexander Ochs, the director of the climate and energy programme at the Worldwatch Institute here in Washington, told IPS. Ochs also reviewed a draft of the IEA report.

Ochs says that there are a number of actors within the gas sector that will welcome the new IEA recommendations as a way of cutting down on the potential of a future environmental catastrophe that could lead to industry-damaging policy restrictions.

“The problem isn’t with this report. The problem is that if you don’t have good regulations in place, there go your opportunities,” he says. “And if you don’t have smart technologies in place, you lose this ally.”

Ochs does warn that the report underplays the potential use of renewables in the upcoming decades, however, by suggesting that green technologies other than hydro will only make up five percent of total energy demand in the next quarter century.

“I think the IEA could well be wrong in the numbers it’s using. Technically and economically, more than half of our electricity could come from renewables as early as 2030,” he says.

“But if gas sees a golden age and becomes cheap globally, it could get in the way of renewables. Then, rather than being an enabler, it becomes a deal breaker.”

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