Shale gas fails the sustainability test

Shale gas is one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity, according to new research from the University of Manchester. This means that an electricity mix with less rather than more shale gas is more sustainabile.

A University of Manchester study has found that fracking is one of the least sustainable options for producing electricity. (Image credit: Adam Cohn via Flickr)

Calling it the first major study of its kind, researchers at the University of Manchester considered the environmental, economic and social sustainability of shale gas in the UK. They compared it to other electricity generating options including coal, nuclear, natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, hydro and biomass.

Seventh out of nine

Taking into account a range of sustainability aspects and assuming that they are all equally important, the research found that shale gas overall ranks seventh out of nine electricity options.

The study compared the energy sources against 18 sustainability indicators: 11 environmental, 3 economic and 4 social. Examples of the indicators considered include climate change impacts, environmental pollution, costs of electricity, creation of jobs and public perceptions.

329-fold environmental reduction needed

The UK government has argued that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. And it is “encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential”.

But the researchers found that for shale gas to be considered as sustainable as the best options, such as wind and solar PV, huge improvements would be needed. This includes a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts and 16 times higher employment in the sector.

Socio-economic aspects assessed

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

The University of Manchester research instead evaluates “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”, explained Azapagic.

More sustainable options

Despite strong concerns across the UK concerning the environmental impacts of fracking, the current government and industry argue that shale gas exploitation would bring improved national energy security and economic developments.

But with shale gas ranking seventh out of the nine electricity options, the study clearly shows that most other options for electricity generation are more sustainable.

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

The research team say these results can now help inform UK policy makers, industry, NGOs and consumers, and could even be of interest to other countries considering shale gas exploitation.

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