‘UK shale Eldorado just off the M62’, declared the Financial Times, reporting a huge gas find below Cheshire. Shale gas is natural gas trapped in beds of underground shale; it can be released by hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, which means pumping water, sand and chemicals into the shale under high pressure. That much we know for sure — but we also know that Eldorado, the city of gold lost in South America’s rainforests, turned out to be one of the world’s great myths.
Had the FT forgotten, or was it issuing a coded warning? Either way, it provided a reminder that the scale, viability and dangers of the ‘shale gas revolution’ are still surrounded by forests of myth and counter-myth.
That the stuff exists and can be exploited has been triumphantly established in the US, where the development of ‘shale plays’ such as Barnett in Texas and Marcellus in the northeast since 2007 has brought gas prices tumbling and encouraged Americans to think themselves the carbon sheikhs of the 21st century. As for the UK, the combination of the Cheshire find by IGas — much larger than first estimated, and ‘most likely’ to be around 100 trillion cubic feet— with the 200 trillion already claimed by Cuadrilla in Lancashire, could meet the nation’s gas demand for years ahead. But how many years? And at what risks? Here’s a brief guide to the great shale debate that has just kicked off in earnest, now that a Lib Dem-driven 18-month moratorium on fracking has expired.
First, confirmation is awaited from the British Geological Survey as to whether UK reserves really are a lot bigger than previous guesses. Greenpeace is eager to suggest IGas and Cuadrilla might be bluffing — while other sources say offshore shale gas finds may dwarf anything so far claimed. But even if it’s there, we don’t know what proportion can be extracted: between 10 and 30 per cent is the range quoted, while shale gas fields are also subject to rapid natural depletion, so reserves themselves are a shrinking target.
Next, will fracking cause earthquakes (the euphemism is ‘induced seismicity’) as supposedly happened at Blackpool during trial drilling nearby? The answer is maybe, but on an insignificant, knee-tremble scale and no worse than is regularly caused by other industrial activity. And will ‘toxic’ fracking chemicals, or gas itself, seep into the water supply? Not unless your water happens to come from a deep well adjacent to a gas drilling rig, as sometimes happens in Texas: if it comes though pipes from the Lake District, you’re pretty safe. As for the fear of flaming methane jets from kitchen taps, that’s a pure urban myth derived from a discredited anti-fracking documentary called Gaslands.
But is it also true, as gas men claim, that we have nothing to worry about because fracking has been safely used for decades? Not quite, argues Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, among others. The first commercial frack, using napalm as the explosive, took place in Kansas in 1947. But today’s fracking is on a vastly bigger scale, at much higher pressures, combining blasting with ‘directional drilling’ (first vertical, then horizontally into the shale beds) and ‘multi-well’ drilling in a way that’s quite new. We don’t yet know what the environmental impact might be, he says, and we’d be wise not to frack until we do.
That’s the position in France so far, but it’s not going to happen here because our own government, however prone to green rhetoric, cannot turn its back on a promise of cheap energy and tens of thousands of jobs. Business minister Michael Fallon was talking last week of tax breaks for drillers and compensating benefits for neighbours of the drilling sites.
The other risk that has not been fully analysed is what shale gas will do to the long-term mix of energy supply. As the US shale sector became the hot place to be, investment began to swing away from conventional gas-field and pipeline development in Russia and elsewhere: so there will be less natural gas available in ten years’ time than there might have been. But in the UK, a new domestic source of gas is another excuse not to build nuclear stations, or to invest in the science needed to make wind and tidal power viable.
Best case? According to a new report from a US government agency, about ten years’ worth of relatively cheap UK supply; others say maybe 15 years’ worth. Worst case? Shale disappoints, no new nuclear, natural gas prices soar, and we’re back where we once feared we might be, at the mercy of Mr Putin and his pipelines. Watch this space.