Most people across the spectrum of the energy industry – from its critics to its most ardent supporters – believe that the days of easy oil are really over.

Apart from the abundant deposits in the Middle East, which are not under the control of the international oil majors, oil is becoming harder to find and extract.

For some this means that the moment of peak oil is fast coming upon us – if it has not already arrived. For the energy companies, it predominantly means one thing –  moving into unconventionals: tar sands and oil shales, rather that moving into renewables.

The problem for them is that unconventional oil is highly polluting and energy intensive to produce.  So from a climate perspective, they are a complete and total disaster.  The oil companies know this and so you can expect a mixture of smoke and mirrors and commitments over trying to capture CO2 using technologies that are unproven and could be prohibitively expensive.

At the moment the current “bogeyman” for the oil industry is tar sands, seen as the most polluting and dirty of the unconventional technologies, but oil shale is quietly making a comeback, which could be even more carbon intensive.

And then there is shale gas, which is being described as the “next big thing” in an article on the website, that continues “Those in the sector looking beyond the oil-and-gas bear market who are planting the seeds of the next big trend say it likely will look something like this: a big expansion of the so-called resource play movement — in which previously uneconomic hydrocarbon deposits, particularly shale gas, are produced using new drilling technology”.

Using new technologies, suddenly shale gas deposits are being discovered in areas previously written off. “An unconventional play has the potential to unlock a trillion cubic feet of gas resources, which no conventional play ever did before,” said Kaush Rakhit, president of Canadian Discovery Ltd., a Calgarybased firm that helps identify and quantify the next big plays. ”

Earlier this month, two new reports were published that highlighted just how important shale gas is becoming to the North American market.  Shale gas could account for a staggering over half of North America’s gas supply by 2020, according to a report by Calgary-based Ziff Energy Group. Unconventional gas production from shale, coal beds and “tight” sandstones will more than double to 46 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day from 21 bcf per day in 2000, they argue.

Also this month a report by the Department of Energy issued a report that concnluded: “Natural gas, particularly shale gas, is an abundant U.S. energy resource that will be vital to meeting future energy demand.”

The DOE concluded that “the United States has abundant natural gas resources. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. has more than 1,744 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas, including 211 tcf of proved reserves (the discovered, economically recoverable fraction of the original gas-in-place). Technically recoverable unconventional gas (shale gas, tight sands, and coalbed methane) accounts for 60% of the onshore recoverable resource.”

The rise of shale gas is changing the North American gas market. Five years ago North America was thought to be of short of gas supply and in need of imported LNG. Now it has a predicted gas surplus for 30 years. What was expected to become LNG’s largest single market – North America – has disappeared and the focus in the US and Canada has shifted from importing gas to finding ways to export it.

Brian Frank, president of BP Energy’s North American Trading Group, said the potential of yet-to-find gas from shale is enormous, “about 30 times the North Slope resource”.

Whilst this frenzy occurs, there is an ecological downside. The more the industry continues to develop these unconventional reserves, the longer it delays the transition to a clean energy future. Moreover, shale gas requires significant amounts of water and more energy to produce than conventional gas.

It may be the next big thing, but that is not necessarily the right thing…