...without a programme of exploratory drilling we have no way of knowing if shale gas production will be commercially viable in UK conditions. Professor Michael Bradshaw
As drilling operations expand, Senior Researcher at UKERC Professor Michael Bradshaw examines whether shale gas has future potential for development in the UK...
In his Budget speech on 20th
March 2013, Chancellor George Osborne stated that: "Shale gas is part of the future. And we will make it happen." Little more than a week earlier, at the launch of the new Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, was far more cautious when he said: "…shale does…over time, with public acceptance and weighted against its environmental impact…have the potential to contribute significantly to the UK’s energy security, to attract inward investment, to boost growth and jobs in certain areas, and to make a notable contribution to the Exchequer."
The differences between the positive endorsement of the Chancellor and the more cautious appraisal of Davey are relatively modest compared to the public debate that has emerged around the issue of shale gas development in the UK. On the one side, there are those who see the widespread commercial development of shale gas as an antidote to our growing dependence on imported natural gas. They maintain that it will help keep energy affordable and create jobs, and will help reduce carbon emissions in a more cost-effective way than nuclear power or renewable energy. On the other side, there are those who argue that the extraction of shale gas is environmentally damaging and would lock the UK into continued fossil fuel dependence, potentially crowding out investment in low-carbon alternatives, which would make it impossible to achieve its legally binding emission reduction targets. My aim here is not to pick sides, but to provide some essential background to make sense of the growing conflict over shale gas development in the UK.
'Unconventional fossil fuel'
Shale gas is an unconventional fossil fuel. What makes it unconventional is that it is trapped in the fabric of shale rock and has to be extracted by the process of hydraulic fracturing. This involves forcing water, sand and ‘fracturing fluids’ at pressures high enough to split (or fracture) the rock, and keep the fractures open to allow the release of the natural gas. The process is not new, but its combination with horizontal drilling technologies has made commercial shale gas development viable. Horizontal drilling makes it possible to drill along the shale bed thousands of metres underground, where the fracturing process can release the gas across a much larger area than traditional vertical drilling. However, the shale gas is released at much slower rates than conventional gas and multiple fracturing of individual wells, because production from each well tails off quite rapidly, means that constant drilling of new wells is necessary to maintain production in a ‘shale play’. This means that both the cost of production and the environmental footprint of shale gas production are greater than those of conventional gas.
The shale gas revolution took off in the US in the second half of the last decade, but it took longer to perfect the techniques and carry out extensive exploratory drilling programmes. In fact, the country’s industry is still learning by drilling, and the technology is constantly evolving to reduce production costs and minimise the environmental footprint. A very particular set of circumstances created the conditions for the rapid development of shale gas that will be impossible to replicate in a UK context, thus we cannot expect to see rapid development of shale gas. However, there is undoubtedly substantial shale gas potential in this country, and we can only find out how much of the reserve base is commercially viable through a programme of exploratory drilling.
The shale gas drilling process presents a range of environmental, logistical and regulatory challenges. None of them in isolation are particularly novel, but their cumulative impact is a cause for public concern. At present there is only one active shale gas drilling programme in the UK, which is being carried out by Cuadrilla Resources near Blackpool. In 2011, their drilling operations triggered two small-scale earthquakes, and operations were halted while the government decided what to do. In late 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), having commissioned a study and put in place measures to monitor and mitigate seismic risk, announced that drilling could resume. However, Cuadrilla is now carrying out an additional environmental impact assessment – related to migratory birds – and is unlikely to resume drilling until 2014.
As the name suggests, hydraulic fracturing uses a lot of water, but no more than many other industrial processes. The water that is pumped down the well contains chemical and sand, and when it returns back up the well it has additional potentially toxic substances in it; thus it presents a wastewater management challenge. The drilling rigs create noise and air pollution and all of the heavy vehicles needed to service the drilling operation are another source of risk and nuisance. Once the well is in production, the surface footprint is relatively modest. According to the government, all of these issues are covered by existing regulations, and the aim of the new Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas is to streamline the regulatory processes that relate to shale gas production. Whether the regulatory bodies have the capacity to enforce those regulations should drilling take off countrywide remains an unanswered question. This explains why the communities in potential drilling areas are organising to protest against shale gas. However, without a programme of exploratory drilling we have no way of knowing if shale gas production will be commercially viable in UK conditions. The concern of environmentalists and climate change scientists is that successful exploration would inevitably lead to commercial development, which would lock the UK into a more carbon-intensive energy future.
'Very early stage'
The reality is that the UK is at a very early stage in the potential development of its shale gas reserves. Less than a handful of wells have been drilled in a small part of the country. We simply do not know what the commercial potential is and we won’t know unless we drill. Clearly, the government is anxious to encourage such drilling activities, but those concerned about the environment – locally, nationally and globally – still think that, in the UK at least, shale gas is best left in the ground. In such circumstances, there is likely to be little common ground and the conflict can only gather pace as drilling operations expand.
Professor Michael Bradshaw
[This article was originally published on 10th
June 2013 as part of Science Omega Review UK