Shale gas - is there fracking loads of it?

There could be decades-worth of gas trapped in the UK's bedrock, according to a British Geological Survey report to be released by the government today.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2013
The BGS report is expected to conclude that there is a great deal more shale gas than previously thought lurking in the UK's rock strata – much of it in the Bowland Shale, thousands of feet beneath the North West of England. So if commercial drilling goes ahead, John Lennon's 1967 prediction of '4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire' could turn out to be not far off the mark.

The BGS estimates that there could be as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet (that's 37,000 cubic km for those of you who aren't stuck in the 1960s) at one site alone. Although a figure for the whole of the UK is yet to be offered, that 1,300 tn cubic feet on is own on is getting on for twice as much as previous estimates, so no wonder everyone is getting excited..

The Treasury in particular is said to be positively salivating, partly because the prospect of decades worth of energy self-sufficiency could hardly be more timely given the diminishing flows of North Sea gas, our increasing reliance on the wholesale markets and dire warnings from some parts of the power industry that the lights may be about to go out.

But also because extracting shale gas – via the controversial process known as fracking – is a complex and labour intensive business, and thus a potential source of much needed jobs and economic growth in regions where both these things have been hard to find in recent years.

The powers that be have thus kept a close eye on the US where rapid exploitation of shale reserves has led to the cheapest energy prices there for years. Expect tax breaks and the easing of planning constraints for shale drilling in the UK, sharpish.

So, is shale really the magic bullet that so many of our great leaders would like us to believe? Err, maybe. The fact is that there is too much uncertainty to say for sure one way or the other. But there are some things that we do know – for starters that there is the world of difference between estimates of the theoretical total amounts of gas present in a shale (such as today's impressively huge number) and the amount that will ultimately prove to be extractable. That figure will certainly be substantially less, but exactly how much can, it seems, only be established by getting on and doing it.

Then there is the fact that the UK is a small and crowded island, where land prices and population density are both far in excess of those in the shale gas regions of the US. And the BGS itself also warns of potential technical issues when it comes to getting the stuff out of the ground – it seems our shales are thicker, tougher and generally made of rather sterner stuff than their more frangible American equivalents. In other words, they won't frack so readily and the gas that is in them may well prove much harder to get at as a result.

There are environmental concerns too – the 'earthquake' risk has probably been overplayed, but fracking has been associated with the release of large quantities of methane gas, an agent of climate change some 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Hmm.

So the excitement over today's news – timed suspiciously you might say to co-incide with the government's interim spending review yesterday – should be tempered with a little caution.

But not too much – it may not quite be a panacea, but it will very likely prove to be a valuable natural resource at a time when we are increasingly short of them. There seems little doubt that we can and should make the most of shale gas in the UK, however much of it there turns out to be in the end.

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