Not so shy about shale

Fifth Ring’s energy PR expert Andrew Bradshaw reflects on the Government and industry giving their backing to developing the UK’s shale gas sector.

“I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”

So sang the Beatles in the 1960s – but that obscure lyric from the song A Day in The Life may yet be prophetic after the UK Government announced its overwhelming support of the country’s fledgling shale gas industry.

A report published this week prepared for the government by the British Geological Survey into how much gas is locked in shale rock beneath Lancashire and Yorkshire, found that one site alone – known as the Bowland Basin – could potentially hold 1,300 trillion cubic feet. To put that in perspective, about three trillion cubic feet of gas are consumed in the UK each year.

Of course, we don’t know yet how much of that gas can be extracted from this particular area – a figure of 10% has been mentioned – but let’s reiterate: we are talking about just one region alone in the North of England.  Elsewhere in the UK, abundant deposits of gas are thought to lie in shale under Fife, and areas in the south of England are also showing positive signs for the gas industry.

This has led the Government to suggest fast-tracked planning applications and incentives for local communities where development could occur. Arguments around the process and alleged environmental impact of extracting the gas from the rock, known as fracking, have been reviewed and rejected by the Government.

A couple of weeks ago Centrica paid £40million for a 25% stake in Cuadrilla’s shale gas field in Bowland, Lancashire, giving the company a presumed value of £160million. Previously Lord Browne, formerly chief executive of BP and now chairman of Cuadrilla, said the company would invest “whatever it takes” to make shale gas a viable industry in the UK. With big business and now government firmly behind the dash for shale gas, is there now any doubt that development will happen?

Enthusiasm for shale gas comes mainly from two sources. Firstly, we have seen the impact shale has had on commodity price in the US, which has dropped significantly, leading to cheaper bills and has also provided stimulus to the growth of the American economy as the country recovers from the economic crisis. Secondly, it clearly has the potential to make the UK self-sufficient in gas once again, so we are not having to rely on Russian or Qatari imports to heat our homes and cook our food. Security of supply is an extremely reassuring prospect.

Will shale gas be the saviour of the UK’s energy industry and the economy that many hope? The answer is . . . we don’t know. For every supporter of the idea there is a critic. Some suggest the American model will not translate across the Atlantic because of population density, geological differences and process regulations. But if the will is there, and it seems to be, then could Bowland become the new Bakken?

And what does this mean for all other sources of energy? There is a general consensus that we have to find a viable alternative to the finite source that is oil. Our renewables industry, while having a role to play, will never provide the country with 100% of its energy requirements. So why can’t shale gas fill at least part of that void?

To put our energy situation in perspective, on the same day as the BGS report was launched, the energy watchdog Ofgem issued a warning about possible power blackouts in the UK 2015. This follows two warnings in recent months that the amount of spare power is decreasing, the result, in part, of some gas generators being taken out of service.

It’s clear the shale gas debate and the emotive fracking extraction process will continue, and there will be many who will oppose it on environmental grounds. But we have all created a world where the availability of power has become almost a human right, and for that to continue we have to find new sources of energy that can be developed on a commercial scale. Is shale gas that option?