Fracking in the UK

On Wednesdays Guardian G2 cover there was a picture of the valley showing the church my grandparents attended in rural Somerset.  It was actually an advert for “Visit England” encouraging tourism to North Somerset.  How ironic then to read elsewhere in the same paper that large chunks of rural Somerset are threatened with fracking for shale gas.

I have very fond memories of the Mendips (the range of hills that cross this part of North Somerset) and of the church my Grandparents attended and their minister, a frustrated evangelical winding down to retirement in the church that was not of his taste.  Both sets of my Grandparents lived in what are described as “strip settlement” villages in the country.  In the village of one set of Grandparents the road was dangerous and the countryside all around was privately owned, meaning as children we could not wander freely.  At the set who lived at the bottom of the Mendips the situation was completely different.  Part of the range towered over the bungalow.  Walk a short distance cross the road and go through a field (on a right of way) and you reached on of the many small quarries in the area.  Go round it (or up it as my brother did) and you could walk to the top of the hill and then on for miles in either direction with the most fantastic views all around.  As kids we were allowed off on our own in a way and an age we would not let my children have done so.  Its not too much of an exaggeration to say I discovered my love for God’s creation and the outdoors in these hills.

I was upset then to read about the fracking threat.  In actual fact the bit I know very well is not threatened (at the moment).  However, the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses cover very large chunks of North East Somerset stretching almost to Bristol and Bath and taking in Keynsham, Shepton Mallet and Wells.  One threat is that fracking might contaminate the UK’s only hot springs at Bath.  (No one is exactly sure of the source of the hot water but one possibility is that it originates near Shepton Mallet.) These springs have had a fortune spent on them and have only just re-opened for public bathing.

When we started writing “No oil in the lamp” we didn’t know much about fracking but obviously had to research it.  The following passage is some of what we said;

”The last area of controversy and the one most relevant to this book – is this a game changer as far as the resource size is concerned? Could shale gas become a big provider of energy in the future? The wells deplete very fast (up to 65% in the first year), with each well being exhausted in 5-10 years, hence the need for so much drilling1. This rapid depletion, together with the energy needed to extract the gas effectively puts a floor under the market price for shale gas (higher than conventional gas). According to the USEIA 2010 report shale gas will boost the global recoverable reserves of natural gas by 40%2. However, whilst this report is conservative in terms of recoverable gas, it is probably optimistic on the size of the fields, basing its data in some cases on scant geological data. Recently one large shale gas field has had its reserves total lowered by 80%3. Comments by Sam Laidlaw, the CEO of Centrica (formerly British Gas) reported on the Guardian website are cautious: He sees shale gas making little contribution outside the US in the medium term and thinks the rapid depletion of the fields may limit its effectiveness. The think-tank Chatham House have produced a report suggesting shale gas may even push up prices of gas after 10 years since little exploration for conventional gas will take place whilst shale gas reserves are exploited in the intervening period4. As we are writing this book in early 2012, the rapid expansion of shale gas extraction in the US seems to have changed the energy picture as far as natural gas is concerned: stocks are up, prices are down, and the US has become a net exporter. It remains to be seen whether this change will be sustained over the longer term.”

1The Oil Crunch-Awake-up call for the UK economy-Second report of the UK Industry Task force on Peak Oil & Energy Security (ITPOES), February2010.

2 SeeWorld Shale Gas Resources: An Initial Assessment of14Region s Outside the United States“,US Energy information service 2011.

3 http://econintersect.com/b2evolution/blog1.php/2011/08/31/u-s-eia-slashes-marcellus-shale-estimates.

4 “The ‘Shale Gas Revolution':Hype and Reality”, available at http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/publications/papers/view/-/id/947/.

There seems to be a lot of ignorance about the shear number of wells that need to be drilled for any one field.  When I was writing this section the material from one of the references above truly shocked me.  Fort Worth in Texas ended up with hundreds of wells all around it, including in the urban area.  Do we really want this to happen here?  Finally another criticism of shale gas we would make now (which we should have put in the book) is that of the energy return on energy invested.  Again a surprise on researching the book was that the return on conventional gas is so low, about 10x on average now.  Unconventional gas is going to be lower because of all the drilling and its a nonsense to use high grade energy to extract lower grade energy.  Peak oil and gas will arrive sooner.  Something its political supporters like the chancellor would do well to recognise.

I have family links with all these places mentioned above.  My Grandfather was born in Bath and my Grandparents lived in Bristol until retirement.  I have family in Keynsham and know Wells because one of my Grandmothers friends lived there.  My Dads cousin was even in Shepton Mallet jail.  This makes all this for me very personal and I wish those trying to stop it all the best.

Neil

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