By Fareed Zakaria
Last year, the world's energy watchdog published a report which asked an important question: "Are we entering a golden age of gas?"
So I was struck when I saw the International Energy Agency's 2012 report. Gone is the question mark.
Instead it says, simply: "Golden rules for a golden age of gas."
And the starting point of that golden age is right here in America.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the shale gas revolution is a game-changer not just for the energy industry, not just for the U.S. — but for geopolitics.
The technology behind shale gas production, where shale rock is blasted with a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, is only two decades old. The process is called fracking.
And in a short time, its success has led to the drilling of 20,000 wells in America, the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a guaranteed supply of gas for perhaps 100 years. The International Energy Agency says global gas production will rise 50% by the year 2035; two-thirds of that growth will come from unconventional sources like shale — a market the U.S. completely dominates.
We've become the world's lowest-cost producer of natural gas at a cost of $2 per thousand cubic feet; compare that with many European countries which have to pay seven times as much to Russia.
It's increasingly possible to use liquified natural gas as a substitute for oil as a transportation fuel, so the effects go beyond generating electricity. General Motors is planning to produce cars that can take natural gas or oil in their fuel tanks.
Aside from the advantages to America, shale gas has the potential to change the geopolitics of energy.
So far, gas has been supplied by a handful of regimes — Russia, Iran, Venezuela — many of them nasty and illegitimate, thriving on global instability, which actually helps their bottom line since instability equals higher oil and gas prices.
In the next 20 years, much of this energy could come from stable, democratic countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Poland, France and Israel. That would be good for the free world, bad for the rogues and good for global stability. China has huge shale reserves and, even though it is not democratic, it is a country that seeks stability, not instability.
One problem — there's a significant lobby against shale gas and the way it's produced.
Fracking consumes a lot of water.
Shale production also creates large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas. Sometimes methane pours out of faucets in areas near shale gas production centers, as you can see in this video. Critics also claim fracking can trigger minor earthquakes.
So what do we do?
The good news is these risks are manageable, as the IEA's new report points out. And it has a list of "Golden Rules" to follow — from safety measures to reducing emissions to engaging with local communities.
The IEA estimates these measures would add just 7% to the cost of the average shale gas well.
Many of the riskiest practices are employed by a small number of the lowest-cost producers, a situation that calls for sensible regulation.
Let's figure out how to make fracking cleaner and safer. We can regulate the process with good, simple rules. The benefits are immense and the problems manageable.
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