The world’s first offshore fracking well could be drilled in the Irish Sea following planned exploration by a new British firm.
The founder of UK shale gas company Cuadrilla, Dr Chris Cornelius, has revealed plans to establish the first offshore shale operation after his new firm, Nebula Resources, was awarded three provisional licenses by the government, according to the BBC.
Fracking techniques – which involve fracturing shale rocks with a high-pressure stream of water and chemicals – are already used to improve the flow of conventional offshore gas wells and to release gas deposits in onshore shale rock.
But until now the fracking of offshore shale deposits has largely been seen as uneconomic because of the cost of operating offshore and the relatively small size of shale reservoirs compared to conventional oil and gas deposits.
Prof Peter Styles, a geophysicist and fracking expert from Keele University, said there was no obvious technical reason why offshore fracking could not be done but that it would probably require substantial investment from major oil companies.
‘Technically I do not see any serious problems with doing it offshore,’ he told The Engineer. ‘There are vast reserves offshore. [But] I’m not saying it’s trivial and I’m not saying it’s cheap.’
Creating offshore shale wells would require a scaling-up of existing offshore fracking capabilities, he said. ‘You would have several fracking stages because you’re not just in a reservoir – all of [the rock] is the reservoir.’
But, he added, it may be possible to perform part of the operation onshore, reducing its complexity and cost, plus UK industry had the advantage of years of experience operating offshore oil and gas facilities and a substantial amount of infrastructure for collecting and transporting the fuel.
However, Prof Richard Davies, director of Durham Energy Institute and leader of the European fracking research consortium ReFINE, said that offshore fracking may not be a high priority for the established oil industry.
‘The cost of an offshore well is dramatically higher than an onshore well and shale gas wells produce quite small volumes of gas,’ he told The Engineer. ‘The economics of drilling offshore when you’re likely to get less gas don’t stack up.
‘There are other sources of stranded gas [small, hard-to-reach deposits] that don’t require fracking that would probably be of equal or more importance than shale at this time.’
But, he added, understanding of Britain’s offshore geology was much greater than that of the onshore because of years of drilling and surveys.
Fracking far away from human settlement may also become more attractive to an industry that has received much opposition to its plans to drill for shale gas at onshore sites in the UK. BP, for example, recently ruled itself out of UK onshore fracking in the near future, expressing worries about becoming a target for protestors.
According the Department of Energy Climate Change (DECC), the licenses grant Nebula Resources exclusive rights to the designated areas for two years, but the firm has to prove it can raise the necessary financial resources before it is allowed to begin exploratory drilling.
Cornelius, whose previous company Cuadrilla is behind attempts to begin fracking operations in Lancashire, admitted it wasn’t clear that Britain’s offshore shale gas could be economically extracted.
‘Certainly offshore shale gas is a new concept, and there’s no reason with the UK’s history of offshore development that we can’t develop these resources offshore,’ he told the BBC.
‘We’re very comfortable that the resource is there and the numbers are absolutely ginormous. Is any of that exploitable? That’s the billion dollar question and we won’t know that for many years.’