Projects per year
Many countries are considering exploitation of shale gas but its overall sustainability is currently unclear. Previous studies focused mainly on environmental aspects of shale gas, largely in the US, with scant information on socio-economic aspects. To address this knowledge gap, this paper integrates for the first time environmental, economic and social aspects of shale gas to evaluate its overall sustainability. The focus is on the UK which is on the cusp of developing a shale gas industry. Shale gas is compared to other electricity options for the current situation and future scenarios up to the year 2030 to investigate whether it can contribute towards a more sustainable electricity mix in the UK. The results obtained through multi-criteria decision analysis suggest that, when equal importance is assumed for each of the three sustainability aspects shale gas ranks seventh out of nine electricity options, with wind and solar PV being the best and coal the worst options. However, it outranks biomass and hydropower. Changing the importance of the sustainability aspects widely, the ranking of shale gas ranges between fourth and eighth. For shale gas to become the most sustainable option of those assessed, large improvements would be needed, including a 329-fold reduction in environmental impacts and 16 times higher employment, along with simultaneous large changes (up to 10,000 times) in the importance assigned to each criterion. Similar changes would be needed if it were to be comparable to conventional or liquefied natural gas, biomass, nuclear or hydropower. The results also suggest that a future electricity mix (2030) would be more sustainable with a lower rather than a higher share of shale gas. These results serve to inform UK policy makers, industry and non-governmental organisations. They will also be of interest to other countries considering exploitation of shale gas.