Structuring the shale gas controversy: Issues


The identification of performance issues gives us a true insight into the costs and benefits of the exploitation of shale gas. Performance issues relate to all the dimensions of sustainability affected by the topic analyzed – exploitation of shale gas – from environmental to economic, social and political aspects.

Here, the concepts of “costs” and “benefits” are not necessarily measured on a monetary scale, but on a diversity of scales, to be defined through the assessment process, measuring impacts on well-being, health or the environment, as well as the economy.

Energy availability and energy price

Under the current economic system, characterized by high metabolic activity, energy demand in the next decade could surge by 35% from 2008 to 2035, according to the “Golden Age of Gas scenario” designed by WEO, 80% of that increase coming from non-OECD countries. As reserves of shale gas are fairly evenly distributed in the world (at least where exploration has been conducted), unconventional gas deposits seem to represent an opportunity for countries that will face high energy demand, without having significant reserves of conventional oil or gas. Reserves of unconventional gas are currently estimated to equal roughly those of conventional gas, amounting to 187 billion cubic meters, i.e. at least 60 years of world consumption.

Local effect of unconventional gas exploitation is arguably positive on the energy bills of households, who are one of the primary consumers of gas, as well as industries seeking for cheap energy sources. In the United States, for example, prices of gas have dropped as a result of the exploitation of unconventional gas on a large scale.

Economic opportunities for local landowners, for local inhabitants and business

Depending on national and local legislation, landowners can receive payments for the exploitation of shale gas under their land. In the USA, the Chesapeake Company is paying landowners 5 000 $ an acre for the authorization to exploit shale gas.

The sustainability of job opportunities in the fracking industry needs to be assessed. While European environmentalist groups mention “boom and bust” cycles in local economies, studies in the USA highlight the creation of direct jobs and the development industries downstream of gas production.

In Texas, for example, shale gas is arguably creating further economic opportunities for the petrochemical industry, “which is converting cheap and abundant natural gas into resins and polymers for items like synthetic clothing and cellphones” (New York Times, July 16th, 2012). Sustainable economic impact has to be assessed on a case-to-case basis, along with the impacts of this downstream effect on other performance issues.

However, other economic impacts can be locally negative: low prices have led some smaller gas companies to bankruptcy, and facilitated mergers and acquisition by larger companies, the only ones able to pay for the contemporary fracking technique developed by transnational company Halliburton.

Environmental quality and health risks

The main categories of risk identified, for the environment and/or for health are: greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, air quality, and local seismic activity.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The gas extracted through fracking is methane, a gas 25 times more powerful as greenhouse gas (GGS) than carbon dioxide. Favourable studies argue that this is still less GGS than oil or coal combustion. Though companies try to limit leakage as much as they can, a certain level of gas leakage seems unavoidable.  This phenomenon is responsible for more emission of methane than venting or flaring, but less than burning the gas, adding around 20% to the latter.

According to the WEO, shale gas emissions are 3 to 12% higher than the emissions of conventional gas. It is unclear if this evaluation takes into account the full range of emissions produced by the intense truck traffic necessary for production of the gas, through transportation of sand, water and chemicals, as well as removal of flowback water (see last criteria in this list).


The technique of hydraulic fracturing involves injecting large amounts of water (10 000 to 20 000 cubic meters per extraction), mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures.

More than two thousand five hundred types of chemicals have been used for fracking, according to the Chamber of Commerce of the US House of Representatives.  596 of those chemicals have been identified through the private initiative of scientist Theo Colborn, 29 of which are known to be damaging for health or the environment. Their effects on exposed population are one or several of the following: carcinogenic, mutagen, neurotoxic, toxic to reproduction, endocrine disruption. Many other chemicals used are kept as industrial secrets.

Local reports of due to contaminated water are widespread in areas where shale gas is exploited in the United States. Contamination of water by gas also means there is for local inhabitants of those areas.

The industry argues that the shale layers are separate from the water table, being hundreds of meters below the latter. But leaks of polluted and radioactive water, residues of the fracking process or of elements naturally present underground (like radium) have occurred. Risk on individual sites is multiplied by the number of sites under exploitation (hundreds of thousands). According to a study by the industry itself, around 6% of the cement pipes used in the exploration phase experience cracks, leading to a flowback of contaminated water into the pipes.


·      Air pollution can occur through several process: one is through the chemicals contained in the flowback water (known in the industry as “produced water”), amounting to roughly half the injected water, the other is through the gas refining process, which evaporates on site dangerous chemicals. This has been reported to produce locally high level of ozone concentration.

Seismic activity

·      Other hazards. The fracking techniques also create local earthquakes. The effect of this seismic activity may be minor at the moment, however their impact also needs to be assessed, as they may damage gas wells for example. Stored condensates can contain explosive chemicals; explosions have been reported locally.

Local transportation

·      The additional burden of large truck traffic (at least 20 000 cubic meters of water are transported at each injection) on road infrastructure may be a major factor of accident hazards (one accident a week involving a truck involved in shale gas is accounted for in Pennsylvania) and higher maintenance costs for local authorities (it should be taken into account that companies have in certain states paid for upgrading roads, thus covering additional costs, but to what extend this is true and will last should be assessed).

·      GHG emissions should also be appreciated in the full life cycle of shale gas. Its production involves the transportation of very large amounts of water by truck, which causes additional CO2 emissions.