MIT study calls for international increase in shale gas research

Research into tapping shale gas should be substantially increased because of its potential role in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, a new report says.

Natural gas provides a ‘cost-effective bridge to a low-carbon future’ and controversial techniques for extracting it from rock beds have dramatically increased supplies, according to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The report calls for the US government to increase the scope and scale of research into shale gas drilling and encourage its development around the world, particularly in Europe and China, despite environmental concerns about its impact on water supplies.

Shale drilling is increasing rapidly in the US, where estimated unconventional gas sources almost double the amount of recoverable gas in the country to 2150 trillion cubic feet. The first UK drilling operation began earlier this year in Lancashire.

‘In the US, a combination of demand reduction and displacement of coal-fired power by gas-fired generation is the lowest cost way to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50 per cent,’ said the study from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

‘For more stringent CO2 emissions reductions, further de-carbonization of the energy sector will be required; but natural gasprovides a cost-effective bridge to such a low-carbon future.’

Gas is also likely to play a major role as a backup energy source to counter the intermittency of renewable sources such as wind, and could become more widely used as a transport fuel, the report said.

Shale gas is usually extracted using hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, a process that has attracted criticism and legal action as it involves the pumping of chemicals into the ground, while reports have emerged of gas entering nearby drinking water supplies.

The study found the environmental impacts of shale were ‘challenging but manageable’, and that some cases of the gas entering freshwater tables were ‘most likely the result of substandard well-completion practices by a few operators’.

Responding to a question from The Engineer at a recent conference, MIT’s Chevron Professor from the chemical engineering department, Robert Armstrong, said the shale gas industry needed to quickly adopt best practices.

‘The only way gas can get into drinking water is if you don’t fit the well correctly so following best practices in the drilling industry is going to be critical if the industry is going to be allowed to continue to produce these large shale resources,’ he said.

‘Proper control and treatment of surface water is critical. There’s a lot of water produced from the well and the producers need to have standard practices put in place to allow capture and treatment of the water before it’s put back into the system.’

He added that most of the industry expertise in gas drilling was based around the Gulf of Mexico and a migration of experience and technology to the northeast US, where much of the shale drilling takes place, was needed.

Mining company Cuadrilla Resources last week suspended its UK drilling operation after earth tremors were felt in nearby Blackpool.

But the Energy and Climate Change Committee of MPs recently concluded that fracking posed no direct risk to water suppliers provided the drilling well was constructed properly.