WASHINGTON — The United States has offered to help major economies such as China and India develop shale gas, a rapidly growing sector in North America which US officials bill as a clean alternative.
Twenty nations held two days of talks in Washington in first-of-a-kind shale gas talks initiated by the United States, where some forecast that shale -- a miniscule presence a decade ago -- could dominate the gas market by 2030.
Shale gas comes from deep reserves that were thought inaccessible until the advent of new drilling methods. But costs still are usually above conventional gas, and some environmentalists worry about pollution in drinking water.
US officials believe that developing shale gas would provide fast-growing China and India with a cleaner alternative to coal, a key culprit in carbon emissions blamed by scientists for a dangerous warming of the planet.
In Europe, shale gas could also reduce reliance on energy heavyweight Russia. Last year, a dispute between Russia and Ukraine cut off Russian gas to several members of the European Union.
"The main reasons for doing it are national security and climate security," David Goldwyn, the State Department's coordinator on international energy affairs, said of the conference.
"In Eastern Europe in particular, it's really diversity of supply. It's a national security issue," Goldwyn told reporters.
"For China and India, it's both climate security and economic security, because they have large demand for resources and the market is volatile," he said.
Another potential reason -- the United States, and to an extent Canada, have an edge in shale gas. Last year, the United States overtook Russia for the first time in decades as the world's top gas producer.
"In this country it's entirely possible, if things continue on trend, that we would have the ability to export gas extracted from shale," Goldwyn said.
He said US energy companies made presentations during the talks, but insisted it was not a "trade conference."
India's biggest private firm, Reliance Industries, has been eager to pursue shale gas, investing nearly 3.5 billion dollars since April in joint ventures for fields in the United States.
China has been trying to catch up, with the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp reportedly recently setting up a research center for shale gas.
But some environmentalists are not convinced that shale gas is the way to go.
Bentley Johnson, legislative representative at the Washington-based National Wildlife Federation's Public Lands Campaign, said that while gas burned cleaner than other fossil fuels, the effect was less when factoring in the energy expended to extract and transport it.
Even more worrisome, he said, are dangers to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing -- injecting water and chemicals deep underground to bring out gas.
"It makes more sense to invest in truly clean renewable energies such as wind and solar rather than staying on a traditional fossil fuel way of getting our energy," Johnson said.
"As far as the solution to worldwide energy demands in growing economies like China, I don't think it's the answer," he said of shale gas.
In the documentary "Gasland," which won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Josh Fox showed families in a drilling area whose tap water was even flammable.
Asked about environmentalists' concerns, Goldwyn said they showed the need for regulations -- a "huge part" of the 20-nation discussions.
"If done responsibly, it can be done safely," he said.
The talks included four Asian energy importers -- China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan -- along with eight nations in Russia's vicinity: Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.
Delegates from Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay came from South America, where energy power Venezuela is a US nemesis. The other nations that participated were Jordan, Morocco and South Africa.
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