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UK shale suffers potentially fatal blow

Explorers say they will work with the government to try to revive the nascent shale gas industry, but a new fracking moratorium makes it look like an uphill struggle

The UK government's imposition of a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in England brings to an end efforts to launch an industrial-scale shale gas industry in the country for the foreseeable future. 

The government said in early November that it was pausing all shale gas exploration in England “unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely”.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have moratoriums or other blocking legislation in place on fracking, so the process is now prohibited, at least temporarily, in the whole of the UK. 

An interim report on the shale gas industry just published by the UK’s upstream regulator the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which concluded it was not currently possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations, proved the catalyst for the ban.

Opposition parties claim it smacks of electioneering by the ruling Conservatives.

Operations at UK independent Cuadrilla Resources’ Preston New Road site in north-west England—the only location where shale gas fracking has been deployed in recent yearshave suffered a series of stoppages. Drilling regularly triggered seismic activity exceeding tight limits imposed by the government when it permitted fracking to restart in 2018, following a previous moratorium triggered by the tremors on a nearby Cuadrilla site in 2011. The latest tremor, which halted drilling on Cuadrilla’s second well in August, was also the largest there, measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale. 

Other shale gas explorers have not even got as far as drilling, stymied by environmental opposition, red tape and failures to get planning permission from local authorities. The UK government’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), published a report in October contrasting the slow pace of development with the mounting costs accrued by government departments, regulators, local authorities and other local bodies, including £13.4mn spent by three local police forces on managing protests around shale gas sites. 

Shale firms soldier on 

In light of the government’s decision, Cuadrilla will “review the OGA report in detail” and continue to work “constructively” with the OGA to provide further detailed data to address concerns, so that the moratorium can be lifted. The company continues to maintain that the shale gas industry could play an important role in providing energy security for the UK. 

The fracking industry would need fresh evidence of improved seismicity forecasting to lift the moratorium

Fellow UK independent Igas, which wants to carry out hydraulic fracturing on its Springs Road site in Nottinghamshire, central England, asks for a more nuanced approach to the industry. “The OGA report summary found that susceptibility to seismicity depends strongly on a location's specific geology, with the mere presence of faulting or the parameters of the injection possibly of less importance,” its response to the moratorium reads.

The company, whose acreage lies in the same Bowland shale formation as the Cuadrilla sites, also highlights the potential for domestic shale gas to be produced in a more environmentally friendly way than that in other countries from which the UK sources gas imports.  

Electoral gambit?

The timing of the moratorium, as the UK gears up for a general election on 12 December, has led opposition parties which have long campaigned against fracking to suggest that it smacks of electioneering by the ruling Conservatives. The area of northern and central England underpinned by the Bowland Shale, where exploration has been focused, also includes some key battlegrounds in the forthcoming vote. Given protestors have been camped outside the Cuadrilla site for months, and polls indicate wider discontent over fracking, the moratorium could potentially be a ballot-box winner.  

Some opposition politicians have predicted that the Conservative party—which has previously been generally supportive of the industrycould even lift the moratorium soon after the election, if it were returned to power. 

Andrea Leadsom, the UK’s business, energy and industrial strategy minister, says that the government is following the science in halting fracking, but also says that she is disappointed by the moratorium and that shale gas drilling could still provide a “huge opportunity”, if it can be done safely.   

Hard science 

However, sector specialists say a rapid restart for fracking looks unlikely, as lifting the moratorium would require the industry to produce fresh evidence of improved seismicity forecasting.

The interim OGA report, which was partly informed by results from Preston New Road, indicates that it will be difficult to predict the extent of seismic activity in the UK, according to Stuart Haszeldine of the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh. 

While some aspects of UK shale geology are similar to US formations, the country’s complex geological history means rocks have been put under more stress than those in relatively simple geological systems found in the US, says Haszeldine. This means that there is generally more faulting in UK rocks and a greater propensity for tremors when high volumes of fracking fluid are pumped through them at high pressure. 

£270mn Cuadrilla's estimated investment to date

“I think it is mechanically impossible to try to frack with large amounts of high-pressure fluid, without generating lots of small earthquakes that coalesce into larger ones which you cannot predict,” says the academic. 

Haszeldine cannot think of any UK area rich in shale reseources where fracking could be carried out safely under current regulations, but also notes that, in some areas, accurate assessments are hampered by a lack of data. The government chose to provide financial incentives to drilling companies when funding badly needed research might have been more helpful in getting the industry off the ground, he says.  

“If government wanted to help the industry to develop, it could have invested £30mn, perhaps, in drilling four or five boreholes around the UK to find out what sorts of rocks are there, measure the stresses in the rocks and inform a scientifically based investigation,” says Haszeldine. 

Alternative methods 

The industry could, though, in Haszeldine’s view, consider methods borrowed from other areas of the oil and gas industry, which would require exerting less pressure, to extract gas from shale rocks. These include working with natural fractures in the rock, using chemicals to dissolve the gas or to encourage it to flow, or even some form of steam flooding. 

However, these would be speculative approaches for investors, who may not have the appetite to sink further funds into a new UK shale gas method. Cuadrilla is estimated to have spent some £270mn already, in a sector dominated by relatively small firms with limited financial resources. 

The industry is now stuck in a Catch-22 situation, where more detailed study is needed to hone seismic-risk modelling, but it cannot frack further wells in the UK to provide the required data. This could partly be remedied by collating data from similar geological settings elsewhere in the world, such as in the US and China, where shale gas exploration and production is already taking place, suggests Alyson Harding, technical manager at consultancy Westwood Global Energy. 

“I think there is a case for more scientific study of fracking worldwide and seeing how that could be related to the UK geological basins,” she says. But persuading investors to persevere with the UK shale gas sector has just become a much harder sell.    

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