Oil rig moored in Cromarty Firth. Invergordon, Scotland, UK. Photo: Berardo62 via Flickr.

Oil rig moored in Cromarty Firth, Invergordon, Scotland. Photo: Berardo62 via Flickr.

LONDON. – In September, the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced that the government will remove legislative barriers to onshore oil and gas and to deep geothermal exploration. Such measures will allows companies to start drilling and testing for shale gas in the UK and to begin to exploit available resources. Stipulations on drilling include permission requests and detailed environmental reports. After a period of reticence towards onshore drilling and fracking in the UK, declining oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, as well as a mix of unreliable and expensive foreign gas suppliers, may have prompted the move toward more shale gas.

There is a lot of confusion regarding shale gas. Shale gas is natural (“regular”) gas – the same gas used to generate electricity and to heat homes, schools, and hospitals.

The difference between shale gas (also known as an “unconventional gas”) and the more commonly discussed natural gas is the type of rock in which it is contained. Shale formations refer to a type of source rock that has settled on the seafloor and contains enough organic matter to become a source of fuel (all fossil fuels come from organic matter) packed tightly hindering the flow of liquid or gas. In this packed structure, small holes (also known as pores) contain massive amounts of natural gas, but it is more difficult to extract than “conventional” gas.

The natural gas that the UK has typically extracted from the North Sea – similar to that in Norway, Russia, and a number of other regions – is obtained by identifying underground sources, drilling, and inserting a steel pipeline or casing to keep the well open. As soon as a well is drilled, the difference in pressure causes the natural gas to flow up to ground level for processing.

However, in order to extract gas from shale formations, which lies 1,500 to 3,000 meters below ground, external stimulation through hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking” – and horizontal drilling are used to penetrate the shale formation. Once the well has been drilled and the usual steel pipe is in place, pressurized water fractures the rock formation. Sand is injected into the formation in order to keep fissures open, while chemicals aid extraction and limit corrosion to the steel casing.

Fracking often elicits dangerous and dirty associations. In spite of certain pre-conceived ideas, hydraulic fracturing has been a common practice in the UK and elsewhere for over half a century, and years of development have rendered the technology relatively safe and clean.

Setting aside fracking’s mixed public image, gas use in the UK is a significant issue. The country consumes 3 trillion cubic feet of gas annually, half of which is currently imported. According to the DECC, gas represents 33% of the UK’s energy consumption – the rest is comprised of coal, petroleum, and some bioenergy and waste. Most of this consumption goes toward heating, with 80% of UK’s 26 million households heating with gas.

The DECC has also reported that the UK has been a net importer of oil and gas since 2003. With shale gas booming in the USA, coal has become an attractive, cheap alternative for electricity generation in Europe. Increased dependence on coal in the UK, as well as in Germany, may set back their CO2 emissions target reductions.  Under the Climate Change Act of 2008, the UK has set itself the goal of “reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 from 1990 figures.” Germany has set a similar domestic reductions target for 2050, with the added restriction of a 55% reduction target by 2030 from 1990 greenhouse gas emissions. However, as of 2013, Germany has only reduced emissions to 23% from levels in 1990.

When generating electricity, gas emits half as much CO2 as coal and 40% less CO2 than oil. Converting much of the UK’s coal use to gas would significantly aid the UK in meeting emissions targets. Furthermore, in producing this gas domestically from local shale formations, the UK could become less reliant on foreign sources of natural gas.

In one of his recent publications “Ukraine, Europe and Energy,” British Economist and Professor in Energy Policy at Oxford University, Dieter Helm says, “Moving away from gas is something Europe has been doing on a significant scale for the last few years.” Helm notes that the UK has shifted electrical generation with coal from 28% of its energy mix to 40%, while Germany currently commits 45% of its energy mix to coal. As an extreme example, Helm points to Poland, which is 90% dependent on coal for electricity generation.

Although Germany is also known as a leader in renewable energies, generating about 25% of its electricity through a mix of biofuels, wind, hydro and solar power in 2012, the country’s CO2 emissions have increased since 2011. New coal-fired power plants since 2012 have taken up the slack in energy production from Germany’s gradual nuclear phase-out. Nuclear power stations produce relatively little carbon emissions – according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III, coal fired power plants will generate 68 times more CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh).  However, Germany’s nuclear power production has dropped from 25% to 18% following a 2002 law by the Schroder government intended to phase out nuclear power by 2022.  The 2011 meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima may have hastened this nuclear phase-out, but was not a direct cause.

Most currently accessible renewable energies are intermittent and cannot satisfy the demands of the electricity grid. Reliable fossil fuels consistently fill the energy gaps.

Europe has recently become even more dependent on coal due to the instability of foreign oil sources, such as the Russian company GazProm, which cannot provide steady resources given tensions over Russian borders. Dr. Niall MacDowell in the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London insists, “It is in the best interest of the UK, as for any other European country, to maintain a diversity of supply and exploit all possible resources including the possibility of extracting the shale gas available at home in a sustainable way.” Dr. MacDowell adds, “Energy security is national security.”

In a study completed this year by the British Geological Survey (BGS), an estimated 1.3 quadrillion (1,300 trillion) cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England could provide over 400 times the current UK annual consumption of natural gas. In the same study, BGS also confirmed notable reserves of shale gas in Scotland, in the south of England, and in Wales.

In January, French oil giant TOTAL announced an upcoming investment of $21 million for shale gas exploration in the UK. UK energy companies Cuadrilla and Centrica have also made large investments to drill wells in the Lancashire region. After delivering a 4,000 page environmental assessment report to the Lancashire county council, a Cuadrilla spokesman has confirmed that the company is waiting on permission for two proposals before resuming exploration. The same spokesman says, “We are still at very early stages, once flow rates have been tested we will get a better idea of when we may reach the production stage of shale gas in Lancashire.”

However, Cuadrilla’s drilling in Lancashire has raised some concerns about onshore fracking after a seismic tremor in April 2011. While the tremor registered a level 2 on the Richter scale and could not be felt by humans, the event has still caused a stir among locals. The Cuadrilla spokesman has responded to concerns, saying, “Seismic ray detectors have now been set up all around our sites and will signal at anything above a level of 0.5 on the Richter scale.”

Organizations such as “Frack-off” continue to condemn such activities and claim that fracking is likely to cause groundwater contamination, but drillers take a number of precautions in order to eliminate the possibility of contamination. The spokesman from Cuadrilla also confirmed safety regulations on the drills, saying, “For every well bore drilled, a triple steel casing is incorporated from the top of the well all the way past the aquifers underground and all the way down to the shale formation (the aquifer and shale formations are separated by kilometers of rock.)”

Unlike shale gas exploiting companies in the USA that do not share information regarding chemicals incorporated in hydraulic fracturing practices, a spokesman for Cuadrilla explains, “In the UK, what is put in the ground must be publicly announced.” Furthermore, 99.95% of Cuadrilla’s fracturing liquid is made up of sand and water. The remaining 0.05% of the fracturing fluid is polyacrylamide, “the same ingredient that is used in facial cream and contact lenses” according to the spokesman.

Cuadrilla experts have estimated that about 10% of the available gas in northern England could be extracted in the near future. In a recent panel debate on the Future of Shale gas in the UK, Professor of Energy Engineering at Imperial College and President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, Geoffrey Maitland stressed, “Environmental concerns about fracking are to be balanced by the large environmental benefit of using shale gas rather than coal, and the idea of linking it to Carbon Capture and Storage to get us close to carbon neutrality.”

If the transition between exploration and production of shale gas in the UK is successful, the country may well become the trendsetter for a new shale gas economy in Europe, while decreasing their dependency on cheap coal and foreign gas. Along with a process to capture and store CO2 that is currently under development, the UK could soon utilize local shale gas to significantly curb emissions. Still, long term goals to reduce emissions may be a long way off.