Lancashire might not be an obvious candidate for the UK's next mining hub, but it turns out the county has a veritable treasure trove sitting underneath it, in the form of 5,660bn cubic metres of shale gas, according to UK drilling company Cuadrilla Resources. Apparently, that's enough 'gas-in-place' to supply the entire country's gas requirement for the next 56 years. Shale gas is a relatively new thing: while the industry has been going for a while in the US, these wells would be the first to be drilled in the UK. But if Cuadrilla decides to go ahead with the new wells, they could provide 1,700 jobs in the 437 square miles the firm is licensed to exploit between Blackpool and Preston.
This has all come as something of a surprise - particularly given the British Geological Survey had originally thought there were only about 150bn cubic metres of shale gas in the whole of the UK - Doh! But before we all get too excited, there's a caveat or two. Isn't there always? For starters, it's not yet clear how much of the gas will be economically extractable. Experience in the US, where the shale gas industry has been up and running for a while, has shown that it's only really possible to recover between 10-20% of the gas available. But Cuadrilla CEO Mark Miller is optimistic: 'We're equivalent to - or exceeding - the gas per square mile that you'd find in the really successful plays (shale rock formations) in the US,' he said.
The plan now is to drill between four and six more exploration wells, which will allow Cuadrilla to establish exactly how much gas it will be able to extract. It won't be until next summer that the company makes a final decision as to whether or not to proceed. If things go well, though, there are apparently three other similarly-promising areas in other parts of Britain. So, having already transformed the US' energy sector, there's a chance the shale gas industry could turn the UK into the next Dallas.
Considering the increasingly high price of importing gas, and the fact that North Sea reserves are running down, this all looks very timely. Before you dust off your Stetson, though, back to those caveats. The industry has been subject to fierce objections to environmentalists in the US. The process of extracting the gas - known as fracking - involves using high pressure water to fracture shale beds deep underground, releasing the gas trapped within them. Alleged side effects include contaminated drinking water and even gas jets erupting from bath taps. At the Lancashire test site exploration was halted because of two earthquakes in Blackpool, which took place just after tests of the procedure.
So expect there to be hold-ups. Although energy select committee chairman Tim Yeo seems keen to get fracking: 'I see no practical or regulatory reason why we should not,' he said. Although if you live in Lancashire, it might be worth donning a pair of goggles next time you wash your hands - just to be on the safe side.