Opinion: UK energy practices need to be alert to the ‘shale gale’

On 6 June International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Nobuo Tanaka unveiled a special report examining the potential for a future ’Golden Age of Gas’.

The report forecasts that from 2010 global gas use will jump by more than 50 per cent to account for more than 25 per cent of world energy demand in 2035, driven mainly by power generation. Gas is projected to overtake coal before 2030 and will meet one-fourth of global energy demand by 2035, with emerging markets and non-Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries expected to drive the growth.

Among the key drivers cited by the IEA are: the widespread development of unconventional gas; China’s target of implementing an ambitious policy for gas use under its 12th five-year plan; the reduced growth of nuclear new build; and an increased interest in natural gas ­vehicles on a more global scale.

The report’s gas scenario is based on government support for renewables ­staying at current levels. However, IEA chief economist Fatih Birol warned that government debt may prompt several European countries to cut back on ­support schemes for renewable energy, which could seriously reduce proposed offshore wind and solar capacity, ­highlighting the ever-present uncertainty over the need for gas as a back-up.

The forecast hinges on unconventional gas supply, which is predicted to meet more than 40 per cent of global gas demand in 2035.

Thanks to the rise of shale gas, tight gas and coal-bed methane, the US has ­overtaken Russia as the world’s largest gas producer.

The unconventional revolution in the US has changed the global gas markets. The shale revolution has spurred some large companies to pay substantial entry costs to get a foothold in shale, which until now was the province of small operators. Global shale gas acquisitions were ­estimated at $41bn (£25.43bn) in the first half of 2010 as the high upfront costs of the testing, fracking and development process drove much of 2010’s M&A ­activity. This activity is set to continue, with large companies continuing to ­dominate the market. Just this month ExxonMobil bought Phillips Resources and TWP for $1.69bn.

The ’shale gale’ has now spread to other countries, with many hoping to replicate the US story. A study by the US Energy Information Administration in April ­estimated recoverable shale gas resources across 32 countries at 5,760-trillion cubic feet (tcf), in addition to 862tcf in the US, upgrading previous estimates by 40 per cent. The ­figures could transform the export-import profile of nations such as China, thought to have reserves of 1,275tcf.

Some traditionally import-dependent countries could also hold high resources, such as Poland, which is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Elsewhere, Tunisia’s shale gas reserves are estimated at 18tcf, a relatively small amount compared with neighbouring Algeria and Libya. But under an adapted commercial, legal and fiscal framework, small countries could challenge the big hydrocarbon producers by providing incremental supplies to buyers willing
to diversify their supply portfolios.

Is shale gas outside the US the next big thing? No one knows. Regulatory regimes are being tested by environmental ­concerns on production. Companies need to mitigate the environmental risks of hydraulic fracking, the main obstacle to a full-blown unconventional gas revolution.

If anything, large-scale production of unconventional gas outside North America is not expected for another decade.

#For more on the global energy market’s impact on firms, see The Transatlantic Elite, published today