Shale gas: Between a rock and a hard place
Could shale gas production make an important contribution to the future UK power supply? The prospect of hydrofracking alarms environmentalists. But, says Rob Bell, politicians will find it difficult to resist
Fresh from causing considerable controversy in the US, shale gas has arrived in the UK with earth-shaking results. Cuadrilla, the "first company to explore unconventional energy sources" in the UK, has three operational sites in Bowland Shale in Lancashire and permission to investigate a further three nearby.
Cuadrilla well services manager Paul Matich, of drilling consultancy PR-Marriott, says there is potential for 200 trillion cubic feet of gas in this reserve alone - a significant source of natural gas for a UK increasingly reliant on imports from Russia and elsewhere.
According to the British Geological Society, UK gas production from the North and Irish seas peaked in 1999, and production has now fallen by about half. The BGS says: "Declining production rates resulted in the UK becoming a net importer of gas in 2004 and peak production during the winter months is no longer sufficient.
"By 2015, production will have dropped by two-thirds and the UK will be importing around 70% of its requirements, rising to an estimated 80-90% by 2020."
With the decline of coal-burning for electricity generation, natural gas has become an important feedstock for UK power supply as well as domestic cooking and heating, so the prospect of a large indigenous supply fills politicians with glee. However, not everyone is so keen.
Environmental groups in particular - as well as people living locally to possible extraction sites - are against the hydrofracking process used to bring shale gas to the surface.
Tony Bosworth, senior UK climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: "Our main concerns are twofold. The first is the potential impact on climate change. There is already more than enough fossil fuel resource in the world that if we burn it all would lead to catastrophic climate change.
"We don't need to be finding more fossil fuels; we need to be directing investment towards genuinely low-carbon alternatives. We need to direct the UK's focus onto renewable energy - not burning more gas.
"And our other big concern is the potential local impacts of shale gas extraction - fracking. There is growing evidence from the US of the potential for contamination of water supplies by methane and from the chemicals used. It is a real local concern."
However, the companies involved in the extraction of shale gas are vehement that environmental risks can be successfully managed, and both Cuadrilla and PR-Marriott insist that health, safety and the environment come first in everything they do.
Mark Travers, a principal and the global practice leader for site solutions at environmental consultancy ENVIRON also believes that fracking can be carried out without harm to the environment.
He says: "It is a fairly easy thing to manage - it's important to understand the chemical additives you may be using. Normally fracking activities occur well beneath any groundwater, so the chances of affecting resources are slim for fracking activity itself.
"Drilling through groundwater aquifers needs to be done appropriately and we need to make sure people do it in a safe manner. But drilling to extract gas or oil is something that has been happening for many years."
Matich says: "The practices and skills we work with are used in practically all oil and gas operations throughout the UK and the rest of the world. There's nothing different in the extraction of shale gas.
"Shale gas is only natural gas. Although it is referred to as unconventional, the only thing unconventional about it is the rock it's held in. The exploration and extraction are standard techniques."
Matich says that Cuadrilla and PR-Marriott have "high profile" health, safety and environment packages. He says: "We're setting a very high standard to start with. We believe in getting it right the first time. But if we go through all the grief and work hard at the beginning then it will establish a good baseline for any other operations. We're not trying to do the bare minimum to get through.
"So we're working with local authorities, working very closely with the Health & Safety Executive; and we work hand in hand with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Environment Agency.
"We carry out a lot of preparation before we mobilise any equipment to a site, and all our sites are lined with a heavy duty rubber membrane to allow us to maintain containment if we have a spillage of diesel or oil.
"Any site we prepare for operations must be capable of being completely reinstated back to agricultural or development use. A lot of effort goes into environmental concerns as well as managing health and safety."
The potential for shale gas to - at least in part - replace declining North Sea gas in the UK's energy mix means it is unlikely that the brakes will be put on exploration, despite the concerns of Friends of the Earth and others.
Matich says: "It could be very important for the UK - we need to recognise it's an opportunity for another resource. We know the situation with oil and gas in the UK, we were an exporter of gas for many years, but as the fields have declined we've become an importer.
"We need something to bridge the gap. I'm not saying shale gas is the absolute be all and end all, but it has a lot of merit and can help take us along the path to sustainability and reduce our reliance on imports as well.
"Due to issues around availability and pricing we're very vulnerable in current conditions. And if we can take some steps to detach ourselves from that vulnerability it has to be better for everybody. If you look at the US, they've done fantastically and continue to do so with shale gas. It has had a big impact on their energy market."
Travers tends to agree. "It is important to the idea of energy security, and puts the countries where shale gas is available in control. The estimated reserves around the world are going to create a lot of security in locations that didn't have it in the past."
Concerns have also been raised about the impact of shale gas extraction on climate change. Research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester found "in the absence of a stringent global emissions cap, large-scale extraction of shale gas cannot be reconciled with international climate change commitments".
Professor of energy and climate change, Kevin Anderson, says: "As the Government's committee on climate change make clear, for the UK to meet its binding carbon targets, electricity needs to be decarbonised by 2030.
"With so little time to meet these commitments, there is no meaningful emissions allowance available for shale gas. Moreover, pursuing shale gas electricity risks displacing urgently required investments in genuinely low carbon energy supply.
"Consequently, the Government faces a difficult choice: to lead a new low-carbon energy revolution or stick with high carbon fossil fuels, forgo emission targets and relinquish its hard won international reputation on climate change."
According to Tyndall's report: "In the UK, if just 20% of the reserves identified under Lancashire were to be extracted and burnt, it would result in emissions of over 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, representing around 15% of the Government's greenhouse gas emissions budget through to 2050."
However, Travers points out at least shale gas tends to be extracted close to the point of consumption, reducing emissions associated with transport. He says: "A lot of the reserves of shale gas people are looking at are closer to the points of use. We're currently hauling oil or gas from extreme locations to get it to market, but in the UK investigation centres on Blackpool - compare that to bringing fuel from the Middle East or some of the former Soviet states.
"And in the US oil and gas comes out of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, but we're looking at some of the most significant reserves of shale gas being on the East Coast, a few hours drive from some of the country's most populated areas."
It is likely controversy over extraction of shale gas in the UK - and elsewhere - will continue to simmer, but there is no way government or industry can ignore such a tempting source of energy right on our doorstep.
Minimising environmental impacts, whether locally through potential contamination of groundwater or globally through increased carbon emissions, is a regulatory priority. But the possible impact of a shale gas explosion on future development of UK energy production may prove the most difficult hurdle to overcome.
Ben Dhesi, of energy broker Pulse Commercial Utilities, tells Sustainable Business: "When reserves of fossil fuels were dwindling we saw huge momentum and resource shifts towards alternative fuels.
"One fears this might change now shale is looking like a serious fuel. The levels of investment into shale gas fields in the US by Total GP and China's Sinopec of $4.5B shows how much the focus has changed.
"Shale gas really changes the energy supply landscape and the geo-political future of energy markets. This gives a more even spread of energy resources, which could lead to
"However, the UK should think carefully about shale before it jumps in. With its position as an island it has huge reserves of natural power through wind and tidal power that should not stop being developed. The fear is shale could kill off investment into these areas."