But in the tumult of recent months one crucial, if little noticed, development has the potential to transform the energy market. A cautious but authoritative survey published last month by the US Energy Information Administration set out, for the first time, estimates of the volumes of technically recoverable shale gas in 32 countries. Shale is natural gas trapped in rock, and removed by hydraulic fracturing techniques. Once thought too costly, it has of late begun to transform the American energy scene. Production has risen 12-fold in the past decade, and it now supplies almost a quarter of US gas needs. Once a major importer, the country is today self-sufficient in gas. Some now talk of exports.
The EIA does not assess the wider commercial viability of the gas. But the scale of the potential supplies - 6,600trn cu ft in total, with significant deposits in China, Argentina, Mexico and northern Europe - shows the potential. To put such figures into context, the shale gas identified just in the countries the report covers will add 40 per cent to the world's technically recoverable gas resources - and further reserves may yet be found in the Middle East, Russia and Mediterranean countries.
Shale gas can be controversial. Carbon emissions are higher than for conventional natural gas, and several small-scale projects in Europe are held up by environmental concerns. But high energy prices and political uncertainty in the Middle East could now spur many of the world's energy importers to exploit these new, indigenous gas supplies. What has happened in America could also happen elsewhere. Specialist US firms are looking at opportunities in China, and the development of shale gas there could pre-empt the huge imports of both oil and gas that have been widely predicted.
Significant moves towards shale would have big ripple effects in other energy markets, too. Investments in the Middle East and Africa would be undermined if gas exports into China were smaller than expected. Shale could also rival renewables that require big subsidies, and new pipeline and liquefied natural gas projects. There will no doubt be more energy crisis headlines in 2011. However lasting changes are unlikely to flow from political conflicts in north Africa or the nuclear sector in Japan. Instead, it is the quiet combination of geology and technology that could transform global energy in decades to come.
The writer chairs the King's Policy Institute at King's College London
David Fuller's view Note in particular the last two paragraphs which are very much in line with the Fullermoney view.
What about environmental concerns, fracking problems and rapid depletion rates?
There is no environmentally friendly production of fossil fuels but we cannot do without them. The challenge is to reduce the polluting effects.
One of the most frequent concerns mention is the rapid depletion rates within the first year of production which can be up to 70% (see the highly informed email posted by Eoin on this subject last Friday). Consequently, this necessitates repeated drilling and fracking within the region, which obviously increases production costs considerably.
Now my practical experience of fracking has been limited to soft boiled eggs at breakfast. However, it seems self-evident to me that when the gas is trapped in shale rock, each drilling and fracking effort will only release a portion of what is actually recoverable. Consequently, adjacent drilling and fracking will be necessary to release more of the gas sought.
This is good news for drillers but not other participants who will require higher gas prices than $4.31 which is today's close at the NYME (monthly, weekly & daily). Well, gas prices are considerable higher in Europe and Asia. I assume that they will eventually rise in the US, and that the drilling and fracking process will become more efficient over time. The world needs gas and mankind's ingenuity will never be exhausted.
Remember, shale gas is only one half of the story. There are also vast reserves of shale oil to be developed.