The latest figures coming out of the US suggest that the previous exultation of shale gas may have been severely premature. Shale has been promoted as the answer to the question of US energy independence, with claims that there would be up to 17bn barrels of fuel underneath California alone – enough to keep business-as-usual going on for a very long time, and enough to totally destroy any chance we might have of avoiding catastrophic climate change. There was also the small matter that extracting the shale gas requires the incredibly destructive technique known as fracking, which damages land and water supplies.
However, these new figures suggest that those numbers may have to be cut – by 96%. Yes, the actual amount of shale gas underneath California is likely to be a mere fraction of what was previously being imagined by oil industry executives and climate change denialists. This shows the optimism that often surrounds new fossil fuel discoveries, from the tar sands, to the arctic oil, to the California shale gas deposits. Every time, we hear from people who believe we have solved the problem of peak oil, and every time it eventually turns out that we have merely discovered a way to delay it for a few years while further trashing our environment.
Of course, fracking was never a good idea even before this re-evaluation of the shale reserves. The film Gasland famously showed how the contamination caused by fracking for shale could pollute water so badly that you could set it on fire. Fracking has also been accused of responsibility for earthquakes in the area around Blackpool in the northwest of England, and there is an increasingly popular and vociferous campaign against this destructive technique taking place across the UK right now -as we have previously discussed on this blog. You would think that the combination of these facts, along with the new discovery that there is actually not that much shale gas to extract anyway, would put an end to fracking – but it will almost certainly go ahead anyway because our culture seems to be hardwired to choose fossil fuel options ahead of cleaner alternatives.
We need to start addressing this cultural problem urgently. Why do we immediately defer to fossil fuels whenever they become available to us? Why do we seem to have such difficulty accepting that infinite energy sources exist all around us, in the wind, the sun, and the water that keep us alive? There is perhaps a view that alternative technologies are not ‘macho’ enough – a ridiculous proposition of course, but one which seems to have a strange power over decision makers. Or perhaps it is simply a case of the entrenched interests of the oil and gas industry that don’t want us to move on the next technology – even though that is what humankind has done throughout its history.
Whatever the reason, these new figures on shale should be part of the culture-wide jolt that we need to start moving away from fossil fuels. We need to finally understand – truly understand – that there simply isn’t enough oil and gas left in the planet for us to keep up this lifestyle indefinitely. That means we either need to change our lifestyle from the current focus on consumption and comfort, which seems unlikely to happen, or we need to start seriously exploring alternative energy sources rather than wasting our time and money on shale gas and other damaging schemes. This will mean cooperation between nations, it will mean convincing people that fossil fuels are not special, and it will mean making brave policy decision. But it can be done – in fact, it needs to be done, if our other option is the tiny amount of shale that lies in a few rocks under America.