UK study raises questions about shale gas sustainability

A new study from Manchester University has found shale gas to be one of the least sustainable forms of electricity generation currently available.

Shale gas

(Credit: anita_starzycka via CC)

The research, which looked at economic and social factors as well as environmental costs, placed shale gas seventh out of nine forms of generation, including coal, natural gas, nuclear and various renewables. To become the most sustainable option, the study claims fracked gas would need a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts and a 16-fold increase in employment.

“Many countries are considering exploitation of shale gas but its overall sustainability is disputed,” said Prof Adisa Azapagic, from Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science. “Previous studies focused mainly on environmental aspects of shale gas, largely in the US, with scant information on socioeconomic aspects.

“To address this knowledge gap our research, for the first time, looks not only at the environmental impacts but the economic and social aspects of shale gas as well. This enables us to evaluate its overall sustainability rather than focusing on single issues, such as water pollution, traffic and noise, which have dominated the debate on shale gas so far.”

Shale gas

(Credit: University of Manchester)

Published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, the UK-focused study compared the different forms of generation using 18 sustainability indicators. Of that total, 11 were environmental, including factors such as climate change impacts, toxicity, eutrophication and depletion of elements. The four social factors included employment and public support, while the three economic factors covered capital, fuel and levelised costs.

“The results of this study clearly show that, assuming equal importance of the environmental, economic and social aspects, shale gas ranks seventh out of the nine electricity options, which means most other options for electricity generation are more sustainable,” said Prof Azapagic.

“The results also suggest that any future electricity mix would be more sustainable with a lower rather than a higher share of shale gas.”