Is shale gas all it’s ‘fracked’ up to be?

Sam Shead

Reporter

Cuadrilla is looking beyond the dizzy heights of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach to the home counties in search of shale gas reserves fit for ‘fracking’. But is this energy resource all it’s ‘fracked’ up to be?

The two minor earthquakes that occurred in Blackpool last year were ‘highly likely’ to have been a direct result of Cuadrilla’s fracking activities, admitted the company’s chief executive, Mark Miller. But this hasn’t put them off.

Miller met with members of the ‘No Fracking in Sussex’ group in Balcombe on Wednesday night to explain the company’s motives for wanting to drill in their area and offer reassurances that it will have a minimal impact on the landscape, which is an area of natural beauty, and no impact on the water supply.

Fracking involves pumping large volumes of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into shale rock, which causes the rock to split and fracture, releasing the methane gas that lies within the well, where it can then be brought to the surface, collected and refined.

The process has been well established in the US in recent years but campaigners have called for a moratorium on fracking in the UK following the Lancashire earthquakes and fears that drinking water could become polluted.

However, two of the UK’s leading geologists attempted to put the record straight on shale gas fracking at a press event held at the Science Media Centre in London on 10 January. They claimed that, providing the process is well managed and done responsibly, contamination of water supplies is unlikely.

Mike Stephenson, head of science at the British Geological Society (BGS), said: ‘If you ask a geologist what they think the chance of shale gas methane, which is found 2–3km underground, getting up into water wells, which are typically only 30–40m deep, [is], they would say it’s pretty unlikely.’

He explained that this is because there is a layer of very dense, impermeable rock in between the shale and water wells.

Peter Syles, professor of applied physics and environmental geophysics at Keele University, said the chemicals used in fracking in the UK were relatively common and correlated several of them to a list of ingredients found printed on the back of a Sainsbury’s washing-up liquid bottle. 

Furthermore, he said that seismic activity affiliated with fracking only ever occurs on a minor scale and is comparable to the seismic activity linked to coal mining. Stephenson reminded members of the press that the so-called ‘frack crack’ — a picture that appeared in a number of media outlets claiming to show one of the impacts of the earthquake on Blackpool — had in fact been there before either of the earthquakes occurred. 

The pair also claimed that Cuadrilla’s calculations for the amount of shale gas beneath the UK that can be recovered are many times higher than their own.

Last year, Cuadrilla estimated that a colossal 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas lies beneath the Lancashire region alone, which would be enough to meet UK gas demand for 64 years — according to The Wall Street Journal.

However, BGS estimated that the reserves contain only 4.7 trillion cubic feet of shale gas — one 40th of the amount calculated by Cuadrilla. Furthermore, they said it is only possible to extract five to 10 per cent of this.

By its own admission, BGS believes that current calculations for UK shale gas reserves need to be refined, which is fortunate because the Department of Energy and Climate Change is in the process of trying to assign a more precise figure to the quantities.

Stephenson drove home the fact there is a desperate need for more peer-reviewed literature in the field of shale gas before it is possible to make any firm conclusions on the energy source’s future.

However, if the true volume of the reserves turns out to be anything like the one originally calculated by BGS, then it would be unwise to pour vast sums of money into extracting it, regardless of the risks.