Shale gas could provide fuel independence for the US

Mon, Dec 12, 2011, 00:00

ENERGY SUPPLY:DESPITE environmental issues and increased carbon-dioxide emissions, shale gas discoveries in the US offer – along with imports from Canada and increased offshore drilling – the prospect of a century of fossil-fuel supplies free of dependence on the Middle East.

Even Bill Clinton is a fan, arguing that it has been safely extracted in his home state of Arkansas for years, although environmentalists point to the pollution of ground water and the danger that land might have to be permanently quarantined once the gas stocks are exhausted.

In the UK, the predictions for the contribution shale gas could make to the country’s energy needs are less dramatic, but politicians are wary of imposing too many hurdles in an era when security of supply could prove vital.

In May, the House of Commons’ Energy and Climate Change committee reported it had found no evidence that fracking threatens water aquifers, “provided the drilling well is constructed properly”.

A moratorium on fracking is “not justified, or necessary” at present, the MPs said, urging energy secretary Chris Huhne to ensure drilling in all cases is monitored “extremely closely in its early stages in order to assess its impact on air and water quality”.

Conservative MP Tim Yeo, the committee’s chairman, said: “It is understandable that environmentalists have concerns about methane emissions from shale gas after YouTube videos from the US apparently showed people setting fire to tap water. Regulations in the UK are stronger than in the States and should stop anything of the sort from happening here.”

The British Geological Survey estimates up to 150 billion cubic metres of shale gas exist, equal to 18 months of the UK’s requirements and worth £28 billion (about €33 billion) at today’s prices. However, offshore shale gas in British waters could dwarf that available on land.

Opponents say fracking should be banned because it uses dangerous new techniques to break apart rock deep underground, but Dr Clifford Jones of the University of Aberdeen dismisses this, saying the first such fracture occurred during North Sea drilling in the 1960s and it has been used ever since.

Jonathan Craig, a fellow of the Geological Society of London, dated fracking back to 1820, adding that it has been commonly used since the 1950s. Risks to ground-water supplies from “having bad cement jobs on your wells” exist, “but that is exactly the same in conventional hydrocarbon exploration”, he says.

The UK’s Environment Agency said a moratorium is not necessary “on the grounds of environmental risks as we understand them at the moment”.

Mr Yeo agrees: “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process poses any risk to underground water aquifers, provided that the well casing is intact before the process commences. Rather, the risks of water contamination are due to issues of well integrity, and are no different to concerns encountered during the extraction of oil and gas from conventional reservoirs. However, the large volumes of water required for shale gas could challenge resources in regions already experiencing water stress.”

In the US, where experience of shale-gas fracking is older, state legislatures that previously welcomed “frackers” have become more cautious.

In May 2010, Pennsylvania ordered a three-year moratorium on new drilling until a comprehensive environmental-impact assessment is carried out, but it has not stopped the wells that are producing. New York did the same in August of that year.

Once fracked, the shale-gas well bleeds gas until it is exhausted. Some argue each well will have one to two years of peak production, followed by up to 50 years at lower rates; others say production will quickly drop away to nothing.

Landowners in the US have an incentive to accept drillers on to their lands because they get a share of the proceeds. However, in the UK mineral rights are held by the crown, meaning landowners in Lancashire may get rent, but no lottery-style bounty.

But UK landowners have to give permission to drillers to enter their property, except where, following a UK Supreme Court ruling, their rights can be overruled if they are found to have unreasonably refused access or demanded unreasonable terms, or where the ownership of the land is so fragmented that an exploration company cannot agree terms with everyone.

The UK also differs from the US in terms of population densities. MPs have warned that in “the crowded UK we cannot afford to risk the creation of contaminated and abandoned sites where shale gas production has stopped”, and called for an “orphan fund” raised from a levy on gas production.

Once it has been extracted, the shale gas must be piped to where it can be used, which has also raised concerns about the pipelines that would be needed.