We like our shale gas a little naughty and the Earth a little dirty

The shale gas industry, may be headed for a meteoric rise as global demand for the ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel grows, but the word ‘clean’ will need to be applied to the gas extracted 2 miles below the surface to 10 miles above the surface. Somehow the irony of extracting a ‘clean’ fossil fuel, that ‘only’ emits half the CO2 of oil encapsulates the trade-offs the world is attempting to address climate change. Even the global forum of Rio+20, now taking place, reflects a half-hearted attempt to try to find a global solution to the pressing environmental issues. Shale gas becomes representative of our times. “We’ll try to be clean, but we also like being a little dirty.”

Becoming a celibate renewable energy and energy efficient world, even when the potential of ‘green jobs’ is floated, like now in Rio de Janeiro or in the EU’s new energy efficient directive, is not enough. Because society, politicians and capital markets are only slowly developing innovative and joined-up strategies to incentivize a new energy paradigm. The result is busying ourselves with regulatory practices that ensure shale gas fracking practices do not pollute ground and surface water, along with preventing methane emissions into the atmosphere.

These two above paragraphs just took me two hours to write. What I had set out to write was about the identified limitations to regulatory enforcement of the shale gas industry and the awareness by the financial community of the dangers of methane release by extracting shale gas – which zeros-out the benefits of using gas. There are a ton of new articles over the past month, demonstrating the increasing attention to how shale gas is extracted, the moratoriums in Europe on fracking and the continued international push by the US for other countries to use the technology. The Golden Age of Gas, according to the IEA, may be emerging, altering our current energy usage and inhibiting a concerted push into renewable and really clean energy.

The title of this post, should be ‘The Glocalization of Shale Gas’, thus signaling both the global diffusion of the technology and the local aspects of the technology. ‘Glocalization’ is a term from the 1990s to describe the fusion of global practices with local practices. Using the term enables the capturing of broad global processes with the continued importance of the local. But let’s admit it, we like it dirty more than we like it clean. We can all hail the decision by huge institutional investors, which control $20 trillion, to demand that the shale gas industry prevents methane emissions. We can appreciate the go-slow approach of France, Bulgaria and now Romania to impose moratoriums on fracking technology. However, this only boots assessment of the technology into professional commissions that examine the narrow technological aspects of the technology, and out of public emotional reactions. Thus after studying the technology, they will proclaim the technology ‘clean’ if done properly and with regulatory oversight. The light will turn green.

But what is ‘green’? The world likes it dirty – we are naughty to be playing with carbon. Why not have a little more extraction here, and here and oh- over here; even here are some deposits in my backyard. Locally, it is just a little bit more and then some more. The mineral rights and taxes produce income for the state, for the landholder, and keep energy prices just a little lower, so maybe we can all create more jobs. In these times, it is more jobs that we need. Just as we all pretended financial wealth was being created for the past thirty years, the global economic crisis has exposed just how much the global financial landscape has changed. Middle class wealth has been dramatically cut and the credit that fueled the boom is now gone (but where?). The global green credit that we are riding refers to the ecological wealth we are withdrawing from the Earth – we are transforming it into CO2 that we pump into the atmosphere. Literally, burning carbon credits and putting them out of our reach. 

So what is the result? Well, we can spend our time developing best practices to limit methane emissions from gas wells, but it really is not a great start, it is counting beans that will not grow and won’t enable us to get the golden goose. Jack may have climbed the beanstalk and climbed into the clouds to come back down with the golden goose, but counting whether shale gas can be extracted and is our golden goose to a clean fossil fuel era is a fallacy. We will just burn more of it, thinking that it is clean, but the golden goose has already choked on our emissions in the atmosphere. Above the clouds, on the ground and in the oceans, our use of fossil fuels continues to alter the environment – to our detriment. Rather than using the term ‘glocalization’ to represent an economic and social condition, maybe it is better to understand it as fusing the consequences of our local actions with the global implications of our actions. Shale gas may be good for our local economies, but we collectively fail to address the global impact of our actions.