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Increased use of shale gas brings US carbon dioxide emissions to lowest level in 20 years

Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have fallen to their lowest level in 20 years, according to data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), in a development which experts have pinned on the increased use of natural gas in the country.19 Sep 2012

Expected total CO2 emissions over 2012, based on new data which covers the first five months of the year, have declined by 14%, or more than 800 million tonnes, from their peak in 2007. This comes as the figures show an increasing amount of the country's power generation being provided by gas – up from 20% in 2007 to 32% at present. Over the same period the share of power provided by coal fell from approximately 50% to 32%, the same as gas.

Energy law expert Yuri Botiuk of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the trends could be attributed to the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', to access gas from shale rock in the US. He said that the figures showed the controversial extraction method's potential as an "unlikely short-term answer to reducing CO2 emissions and increasing energy independence".

"As uncomfortable as it may be for the renewable lobby, wind power generation for peak time supply has been blown away by clouds of uncertainty and the sun is shining on fracking," he said. "The politics of plenty are behind us now and some pragmatism should be brought to the energy debate. Wishing the world clean will not work and wind and solar cannot provide enough power to fill the energy gap."

He acknowledged that shale was not a "consequence-free solution", but added that "empirical evidence rather than wishful thinking" showed that fracking had a valid role to play as part of the green energy mix.

Fracking, used to extract shale gas from shale rock, involves pumping water at high pressure into the rock to create narrow fractures through which the gas can flow out to be captured. The technology has proven controversial in the UK after studies found that it was responsible for minor earthquakes near a site in Blackpool last year, however in April a Government-commissioned report confirmed that the technology was safe providing companies took steps to limit the risk of earthquakes.

The technology is still at an early stage in the UK, where the Government estimates that potentially recoverable supplies could amount to almost two years' worth of national gas consumption. However opportunities exist for exploration and investment for energy companies elsewhere in the world: the EIA estimates that China has the largest reserves of the gas in the world, while global energy company Chevron has recently won the right to negotiate a large contract in Ukraine. The EIA estimates that Ukraine has the third largest shale gas reserves in Europe, at 42 trillion cubic feet.

Writing in the Financial Times earlier this month Andriy Klyuyev of Ukraine's national Security Council said that the country played a "vital role" in providing power to Europe. However, the country was still a "net importer" of energy and paid far more for gas than was acceptable.

"Ukraine already serves as the conduit for much of Europe's energy," he wrote. "A quarter of all gas consumed in the EU goes from Russia through Ukrainian territory, making it the largest transit state on the continent. In addition, one third of all interseasonal gas supplies in Europe are located in underground storage facilities in Ukraine ... Ukraine is eager to collaborate with the EU to modernise its pipeline system so that we can all continue to rely on energy travelling through Ukraine."

Botiuk said the problem was that Ukraine did not have the necessary infrastructure to support shale gas exploration. However the country's Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, said last week in comments reported by the Kyiv Post that Ukraine will be able to completely provide itself with its own gas reserves within 15 years.

Authorities in the European Union remain cautious about the technology. On Tuesday, the European Parliament's Industry and Energy Committee approved a resolution that increased exploration should be backed up with "robust regulatory regimes" at the national level. Although each EU country should be able to decide for itself on whether to exploit shale gas, the Committee said, changes to EU legislation may also be necessary if exploration increases.