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OUR TAKE: The Questionable Future of Shale Gas

Pentland and Yergin, authors of the IHS Marnier report, are respected figures in the energy field. They are right about shale’s dramatic impact over the last decade on the US energy industry. However, their prediction of continued rapid growth over the next 20 years is on much shakier ground. The global energy system is in the midst of a transition from energy based on fossil fuels, which all produce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), to energy based on renewable energy sources (mostly wind, solar, hydro), which do not. GHGs are what trap heat from the sun (like a greenhouse does) and warm the planet, setting off climate change. The future of fossil fuel energy is time-limited. Wind and solar energy are making inroads into fossil fuels markets, often beating them on price. Renewables’ intermittency issue has been largely addressed as battery technology has improved. Of the fossil fuels, coal, the dirtiest (most GHGs), is already under siege; old plants are closing, and new ones have trouble getting funding. Oil from tar sands is the next dirtiest; given its costs to mine and refine and it’s high GHG content, tar sand oil has only a few years of viability before it’s markets dry up. Oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, the Permian Basin in Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere have lower production costs and GHG content, therefore has a somewhat longer life expectancy, but it too is doomed. The vast untapped oil reserves of governments and the oil majors are destined to become worthless, uneconomical to produce. Natural gas, the product of the shale fracking revolution, is cheaper and cleaner than other fossil fuels, but whether it has another 20 years to run is far from certain. Much depends on the course of climate change, how bad conditions get how fast, and on the global reaction to it pressuring governments and corporations to rein in GHGs; the future of shale gas depends too on how fast financial institutions — banks, pension funds, endowment funds, sovereign funds, the International funders — reassess the risks of their investments in the fossil fuel sector, and to what extent they divest from it; it also depends on the pace of the transition of the transportation sector from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs). Companies are introducing EVs daily, and almost a dozen countries have set dates for banning sales of ICE vehicles. Although it will take some years before EVs replace ICE cars on the road, demand for gasoline (petrol) in Norway has already peaked. By 2030, only 12 years from now, that trend will be widespread. The fossil fuel hegemony is ending. Even shale gas doesn’t have much of a future. Its prospects 10 years from now will look decidedly dimmer than they do today.

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