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UK shale war heats up

Exploitation of the UK’s shale-gas reserves could lead to a rapid rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and cause the country to miss its longer-term climate change targets

A report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, to be published on Monday, suggests that if only 20% of the shale-gas reserves so far identified near Blackpool, northwest England, were to be extracted and used for power generation, it would produce 2 billion tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 15% of the UK government’s greenhouse-gas emissions budget for the period to 2050.

The report, commissioned by the Co-operative Group, updates a study released in January this year, to take account of the latest developments in the UK shale-gas sector.

Cuadrilla Resources, the company drilling shales near Blackpool, estimates the area could hold 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas– over 20-times the UK’s conventional proved resources and enough to meet UK demand for several decades. But experience in the US suggests only a small part of that gas-in-place is likely to be recoverable – probably no more than 20% – and some in the industry have questioned the accuracy of Cuadrilla’s figures, which are based on limited exploration.

But even a fraction of the estimated resources would be a boon as the UK’s conventional gas reserves are in decline. The potential of other shale-gas reserves across the UK are also being studied.

The headline figures being trailed ahead of the report’s publication do not reflect how shale-gas production would affect the balance between domestic supply and conventional gas imports – a key factor, given the Tyndall Centre previously claimed that, measured across their respective lifecycles, the CO2 emissions from shale gas are likely to be only marginally higher than those from conventional gas sources.

Chris Shearlock, environment manager at the Co-operative Group, acknowledges that if domestic shale production merely displaced gas imports, then the overall increase in CO2 emissions would be limited. But he says a preoccupation with increased UK output could distract the government from focusing on development of renewable and other clean power sources that would reduce fossil fuel usage.

"If shale gas displaces renewables, which is what we are concerned about, it would lead to increased emissions," Shearlock told PEU. "With greater availability of shale gas, it’s going to be much more tempting to rely on that."

The report also highlights the expense of extracting and converting shale gas into electricity, which the Co-operative claims would require up to £32 billion ($50 billion) of investment.

"This investment could pay for 2,300 large offshore wind turbines – around the number required for the UK to hit its renewable-energy targets," says the Cooperative. But doubts remain over whether the UK grid would be able to cope with widespread substitution of intermittent wind power for feedstocks delivering reliable, baseload power provision, such as gas.

Shearlock said the UK emissions targets require the creation of an electricity system producing almost zero carbon emissions by 2030-35 and that for this to be achieved using gas, it would require the widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology – which is yet to be proved on an industrial scale.

Meanwhile, the future of Cuadrilla’s drilling programme remains in the balance. The company has conceded it is "highly probable" that two earth tremors earlier this year were caused by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but claims its operation are safe. An independent report published earlier this month concluded that the combination of geological factors that caused the quakes would be unlikely to occur simultaneously at future well sites .

But Cuadrilla’s plans continue to attract protests from local groups and environmentalists, as shale-gas operations have done worldwide. Worries persist that fracking could cause more tremors, as well as potentially contaminating drinking water and adversely affecting water tables.

The Tyndall Centre says the UK’s regulatory system is unable to adequately control environmental risks, including groundwater contamination, that would arise if full-scale extraction, involving up to 3,000 wells, goes ahead.

Cuadrilla has said it will submit its development plans to the UK energy ministry for approval next year. With a green light, first shale gas could be marketed in 2013.

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