The race to ramp up the extraction of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is reducing the economic incentives to decarbonise coal, according to a report published by Global Industry Analysts.
The fracking boom is stoking a growing preference among some nations for natural gas-fired power, and “has the potential to adversely impact adoption of clean-coal technologies in countries such as the United States”, where coal accounts for around a fifth of all energy consumed – the vast majority of it (90%) going on electricity generation.
And the trend, in large part driven by the low price of natural gas, could seriously hamper global attempts to reduce carbon emissions. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), its domestic natural gas production alone from shale is expected to nearly triple between now and 2035.
Climate change has been described by PWC as “the mother of all risks”. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, and the market for coal is expected to remain healthy because of its abundance and the relatively low cost of burning it.
Coal combustion generated 28% of total US emissions in 2010, with the rapid growth of China and India consolidating their position as top coal consumers.
According to the Centre for Climate & Energy Solutions (CCES), coal supplies 26.6% of worldwide energy use and is responsible for 43% of global CO2 emissions. Fracking reduces the incentives to develop so-called clean-coal technologies.
The use of integrated gasification and combined cycle (IGCC) technology has been increasing. Compared with conventional pulverised coal technologies, it can generate near-carbon free energy through the use of a gasifier, which turns the coal into synthesis gas, often known as syngas. This, in turn, can be converted into hydrogen.
However, the price of US coal has remained relatively stable since the 1980s and is expected to remain so over the next 25 years, but the fracking boom has been accompanied by the availability of abundant, cheap natural gas.
And it’s this that is threatening the move to low-carbon energy generation at a time when atmospheric concentrations of carbon have reached their highest levels for at least three million years.
According to the CCES: “Under potential climate policies, the development and success of low-emission technologies, such as carbon capture and storage or other pollution control devices, will be key in order to reduce the impact of continued coal use.”
So it’s good to know the UK is attempting to jump on the fracking boom, too.