A "golden age" of natural gas is dawning, thanks to crafty drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental group. But if the gas industry doesn't obey a few environmental golden rules, the IEA adds, its boom may soon become a bust.

The fuel behind this golden age is shale gas, known as an "unconventional" gas because the industry long deemed it impossible or impractical to extract. It's accessible now with the help of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, which uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to release it from deep deposits of shale.

Fracking has helped the U.S. pass Russia as the world's No. 1 gas producer in recent years, and it's now spreading across the globe as more countries hope to unearth their own buried treasures. But as some U.S. communities have learned the hard way, shale gas can come at the expense of other treasures. Critics say fracking contaminates groundwater with methane and industrial chemicals, and scientists have shown it causes air pollution and can indirectly lead to earthquakes.

Yet while acknowledging such "serious hazards" posed by shale gas development, the IEA's new report argues it can be made safe and sustainable — if drilling companies are willing to follow a set of seven basic "golden rules."

"The technology and the know-how already exist for unconventional gas to be produced in an environmentally acceptable way," IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven says in a press release. "But if the social and environmental impacts are not addressed properly, there is a very real possibility that public opposition ... will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks."

This revolution has so far been led by the U.S., where fracking first gained traction in Texas and later spread to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York, which lie above the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 5,760 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas is scattered among 32 other countries (see map below), nearly seven times the known total under U.S. soil. The IEA expects worldwide production of unconventional gas to triple over the next two decades, most of it coming from shale.

Click map to enlarge. (Image: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Yet despite such lofty projections, the revolution is already unraveling in some places. Municipalities in New York are allowed to ban fracking within their borders, and nearly two dozen have already done so. Vermont recently became the first U.S. state to ban fracking — largely a symbolic move, since it has no proven shale gas reserves, but similar efforts are in the works in Michigan, Ohio and New York. France and Bulgaria have also banned the practice, and fracking operations have been suspended in the U.K. amid fears over earthquakes.

It's this kind of backlash the IEA aims to help energy companies avoid. And to do that, the agency says they must accept small financial sacrifices in the name of safety.

"If this new industry is to prosper, it needs to earn and maintain its social license to operate," says IEA chief economist Fatih Birol in the press release. "This comes with a financial cost, but in our estimation the additional costs are likely to be limited." Applying the golden rules will raise the cost of a typical shale gas well by around 7 percent, Birol says, although he adds that larger projects with multiple wells could reduce operating costs over time by investing in better practices.

The full report is nearly 150 pages long, and includes further details for each rule, but its basic list of recommendations is as follows:

  • "Measure, disclose and engage"
  • "Watch where you drill"
  • "Isolate wells and prevent leaks"
  • "Treat water responsibly"
  • "Eliminate venting, minimize flaring and other emissions"
  • "Be ready to think big"
  • "Ensure a consistently high level of environmental performance"

Not everyone agrees these rules will solve the problem, though. Many environmental and public health advocates argue fracking can never be sustainable, since natural gas is a fossil fuel — meaning it's nonrenewable and releases greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute to global warming.

"[The report] fails to provide hard rules to prevent methane leakage from unconventional gas production or hard evidence that leakage can be reduced to acceptable levels," Greenpeace chief scientist Paul Johnston said in a statement Tuesday, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek. "Greenpeace opposes the exploitation of unconventional gas reserves because the impacts have not been fully investigated, understood, addressed and regulated."

If the rules aren't adopted, the IEA predicts natural gas will lose its "competitive position in the global fuel mix," leading to lower availability and higher prices. It says energy-related CO2 emissions would also be 1.3 percent higher without the rules. In either case, however, it admits that "emissions are well above the trajectory required to reach the globally agreed goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

IEA: Pollution threatens 'golden age of gas'
Fracking for shale gas may be dangerous, but the international agency offers a list of rules it says can make the process 'environmentally acceptable.'