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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Shale to the chief

Gas is great stuff

People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom and doom. The oil's running out, the lights are going out, the pollution's getting worse. But pause to consider the good news. Like shale gas.

Over the past decade, a wave of drilling around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation's natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of its own.

Imagine a source of energy...

that does not require the felling of forests, like wood

that does not require the flooding of valleys or damming of streams, like hydro

that does not require sending men underground, quarrying or using heavy rail cars, like coal

that if it leaks does not `spill' and kill wildlife, like oil

that does not need rare earths, huge landscapes and back-up power, like wind

that does not require insurance subsidy, like nuclear

that does not cost a fortune for every joule, like solar

that does not mean the loss of tidal habitats, like tidal

that works, unlike wave power

that does not mean taking food from the mouths of the poor, like biofuels

that produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal

that can be used for heat, cooking, electricity or fertiliser manufacture

that does not depend on weird regimes.

No wonder that Amy Myers Jaffe argues that

 

With natural gas cheap and abundant, the prospects for renewable energy will change just as drastically. I have been a big believer that renewable energy was about to see its time. Prior to the shale-gas revolution, I thought rising hydrocarbon prices would propel renewables and nuclear power into the marketplace easily-albeit with a little shove from a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.

But the shale discoveries complicate the issue, making it harder for wind, solar and biomass energy, as well as nuclear, to compete on economic grounds. Subsidies that made renewables competitive with shale gas would get more expensive, as would loan guarantees and incentives for new nuclear plants. Shale gas also hurts the energy-independence argument for renewables: Shale gas is domestic, just like wind and solar, so we won't be shipping those dollars to the Middle East.

 

The search is on for the bad news to hang round the neck of shale gas. Groundwater contamination is the chosen one. But the gas lies far beaneath most aquifers so it's not a persuasive worry yet. Truth is, shale gas looks like giving us the ideal cheap, safe, clean, easily transported, moderately-low-carbon bridge till new technology makes solar affordable in, say, the 2040s.