Fracking concerns are legitimate, international energy chief says

The head of the International Energy Agency took aim at natural gas producers that dismiss public concerns about hydraulic fracturing, calling on them to increase transparency of the controversial extraction technique.

Speaking at Rice University on Friday, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven blamed some companies’ failure to engage in public discussions for bans on fracturing in France and elsewhere. She said taking a just-trust-me approach is fueling public skepticism.

“If people tell me, we know what we are doing. Then they don’t know what they are doing,” van der Hoeven said. “Companies have to realize that they need to take people’s concerns seriously. There’s a very real posiblity that public oppositon to drilling for shale gas will halt the unconventional gas revolution and fracking in its tracks.”

Hydraulic fracturing’s impact on aquifers, land use and air pollution deserves more public review, she said. But while the public concern is legitimate, curtailing shale gas production would have a negative environmental impact and  hinder progress toward energy security, she noted.

Without the enhanced production of natural gas from shale made possible by fracturing and horizontal drilling, the world’s largest energy consumers — the United States, China and Europe — would rely increasingly on imports from Russia and the Middle East. And coal would replace a full 75 percent of the shale gas lost, van der Hoeven said said.

“Natural gas in the power sector has caused carbon emissions to fall rapidly. And it’s the shale gas revolution that made this possible,” she noted.

In addition to the environmental benefit, booming growth of unconventional natural gas production is revolutionizing the global energy market and will likely turn the United States into a net exporter of the fuel, van der Hoeven said.

The price of U.S.-produced natural gas has fallen far below prices in Europe and Asia, priming the nation to export it as liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

“Given the uncertain prospects of nuclear power in Japan, the political drive to clean up the energy system in China, and the acute energy shortages in India, Asia is intensely looking for LNG supplies,” van der Hoeven said. “There is little doubt that if low gas prices continue, they will provide competitive advantage for the U.S. economy for a long time.”