Fracking has been met with resistance by environmental and community groups ©PA Images
Fracking has been met with resistance by environmental and community groups ©PA Images

UK shale gas reserves called into question

17 August 2017

Shale gas may not be as economically viable in the UK as originally thought, according to a geological researcher.

The underground basins that contain the UK’s shale reserves are not as optimum as those in the US because they have been uplifted, cooled and deformed by seismic activity, according to Professor John Underhill of Heriot Watt University.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Underhill said: “[In the US] those basins are hot, deep, simple and undeformed. The UK basins, however, are sited on what was an active plate margin 55m years ago, and that makes them very different.

“They’ve been uplifted, they’ve been cooled, they’ve depressured and they’ve deformed by folds and faults as a result.”

UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), an industry body, said it was too early to make any firm predictions.

Shale gas is trapped in fissures in underground rocks and is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where a mixture of sand, water and other chemicals is pumped at high pressure into the shale bed to open up these fissures and release the trapped gas. The same process has been used successfully to extract oil from shale beds in America.

Fracking has been met with resistance by environmental and community groups, both in the UK and elsewhere, who argue the process is unsafe and environmentally damaging.

Underhill, who is chair of exploration geoscience and chief scientist at Heriot Watt’s Institute of Petroleum Engineering, said his intervention was not motivated by any opposition to the process. “My take on this is very much to put geology at centre stage,” he said.

“If you’re looking at one individual [well] you might make it work… [but] when you look at all the individual pieces all together the whole picture emerges,” he added. 

Mark Lappin, technical director at Caudrilla, one of the companies working to exploit shale gas in the UK, said research by the British Geographical Survey indicated a large potential reserve. “It is the purpose of our current drilling operations to better understand the reserve, reduce speculation from all sides and decide if and how to develop it,” he said.

Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG, said the industry was still exploring the commercial viability of shale gas. “All operators are very much aware of structural complexity in parts of the European continent and the programme of 3D seismic acquisition is designed to quantify this in detail for the first time,” he said. 

“It is too early to make any firm predictions but with imported gas predicted to rise to 80% by 2035 it is important that we get on and complete this work,” Cronin added.

However, Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School, said even if the wells flowed there was no guarantee shale gas would be commercially viable. “The world is on the brink of a glut of natural gas that could last well into the 2020s and it may prove much cheaper to import the gas we need,” he said.

“I would suggest that the government should not count on there being significant shale gas production in the UK and should design a post-Brexit gas strategy that is compatible with its wider energy policy goals of security, affordability and sustainability.”

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