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2 May 2013

Let’s hope the Chinese discover shale gas and plenty of it

Nuclear fusion is the energy source of the future – and always will be. Or so the old joke goes. But what’s this? According to the Independent, the £13 billion ITER project in France has made a “breakthrough in [the] quest for nuclear fusion, a solution to climate change and an age of clean, unlimited energy.” 

Well, that would be nice – but if you look below the breathless headline, what this “breakthrough” actually consists of is no more than the latest stage in the project’s very long construction phase. If ITER eventually succeeds in its purpose – demonstrating that it is, in principle, possible to build a fusion reactor that generates more energy than gets put into it – then that would be a breakthrough. But the thing doesn’t even get switched on until 2020, the start of years of experiments, which, even if successful, would be no more than the starting point for a long struggle to commercialise the technology. 

So don’t throw away your electricity meter just yet.

In fact, the next time you see a headline – from whatever source – promising an energy breakthrough, do bear in mind that it is almost certainly a massive exaggeration. 

Ironically, we already know what a real energy breakthrough looks like. America’s shale gas revolution started off as an experiment, demonstrated its technical viability, commercialised its technology and visibly transformed the energy market in which it operates.

The shale gas industry does still have one thing to prove, however – whether it can open up shale gas reserves beyond North America. If it can, then energy markets will be transformed the world over.

Writing for the Financial Times, Nick Butler considers the case of China, citing the views of Elizabeth Muller of Berkeley Earth, “an impeccably green non profit research group in California”:

  • “In her opinion, environmentalists in the US and elsewhere should be encouraging China to develop its shale gas resources. Those resources are huge – perhaps 50 per cent greater than those of the US, and have yet to be explored in detail. That process is just beginning and includes a number of international companies including Shell.”

Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are opposed to the development of shale gas, due to its carbon content and the risk of local pollution. However, the practical choice is not between shale gas and nothing, but shale gas and coal:

  • “Shale gas is not carbon free but it is cleaner than coal which is China’s basic fuel now. And unless things can be changed radically, will be the dominant source of energy for the next several decades. If shale gas could back out some amount of China’s coal consumption, emissions could be materially reduced.”

What exactly do the green NGOs expect China to replace its hugely damaging coal use with? It’s not like China isn’t developing its renewable energy resources (in fact, the anti-greens might like to note that the Chinese are investing much more heavily in wind and solar power than we are). But Chinese coal use is on such a scale that it can only be displaced by something as big as shale gas. 

But looking at this from a geopolitical viewpoint, isn’t China already powerful enough? Is it really in the interests of the US to transfer its shale gas technology to the emerging super power? Nick Butler makes an excellent as it why it is:

  • “...there is another good reason for the US (and the UK and indeed all sensible people) to hope that China will develop shale gas in a big way. Chinese oil and gas imports are growing. Last year oil imports totalled around 5m barrels a day along with a small amount of gas.
  • On the International Energy Agency’s latest (pre-shale gas ) projections they are set to rise to over 12m barrels and over 230bn cubic metres of gas over the next 20 years. The impact on emissions is frightening. But, on top of that, import dependence for resources is pushing China into some very unhappy relationships with some very unpleasant regimes in the Middle East and Africa – from Iran to Zimbabwe.”

China and the West have a mutual interest in a close, cooperative partnership. All other things being equal, this is the dynamic that could and should drive international relations over the course of the 21st century. 

However, all other things are not equal. One only has to look at the way that the West’s foreign policy has been distorted by dependency on energy resources controlled by despots. Just imagine what the same thing will do to China’s foreign policy.


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