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Britain Looks To Fracking As North Sea Oil & Gas Dwindles

Stanley Reed, The New York Times

“Manchester and Liverpool could be centers of shale gas excellence.”

A worker prepares a site for exploratory drilling in Barton, England. IGas Energy expects to get started before the end of the year.

Driving down a bumpy country road in northwest England, one comes upon a bare patch the size of a soccer field at the edge of a peat bog. Workers are erecting a security fence and unrolling watertight film to protect the soil from chemical contamination. Near the middle is a big rectangular hole where a drilling rig will go.

Inauspicious as it may look, what happens on this patch of ground in the coming months could help determine the future of Britain’s, and even Europe’s, approach to shale gas. The energy source has made the United States, for one, suddenly self-sufficient in natural gas, but it raises environmental concerns that have made many countries on this side the Atlantic dead set against it. Shale gas is extracted by the technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or fracking, the harsh-sounding word that can stir the passions of the technology’s harshest critics.

In France, the nation’s highest court recently upheld the government’s right to ban fracking. In Germany, fracking activity is suspended at least until a new government is formed.

But within the European Union, Britain — struggling to confront its energy future as its North Sea oil reserves are depleted, dirty coal is demonized and nuclear power remains expensive and geopolitically fraught — stands out as the country in which the government has officially encouraged the development of shale gas. Prime Minister David Cameron has thrown his support behind shale gas drilling, hoping to reap some of the benefits seen in the United States.

John Blaymires, chief operating officer of IGas Energy, said the government’s support could reap big rewards for Britain, especially in the industrial Manchester-Liverpool region, where the soccer-field-sized bare patch is being readied in Barton. “There is another Aberdeen waiting to be created,” he said, referring to Scotland’s North Sea oil hub. “Manchester and Liverpool could be centers of excellence.”

IGas, one of the small British companies chasing big dreams of shale-gas riches, has assembled a large package of acreage in an area that geologists say looks particularly promising. The company plans to drill an exploratory well here before the end of the year. If it likes what it finds, the company would then probably apply for permission to hydraulically fracture that well, or others that they may also drill in the area, to find out whether there are strong enough gas flows from the shale rock to make further investment worthwhile.

On a recent day, Mr. Blaymires led a tour of the windswept site and another about a half-hour’s drive to the west, in Warrington, where the company is already producing methane gas from coal beds — a conceptually similar technique that is also still considered unconventional.

IGas was founded in 2004 mainly to develop coal gas. But the company now reckons that shale gas, which it thinks can be found at greater depths than the coal in the area, may prove more promising. Mr. Blaymires said that 2014 and early 2015 were shaping up as a “critical period” for the company and the industry. “In all likelihood, a number of wells will be drilled and fracked, and that will determine the commercial potential of shale in the U.K.,” he said.

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