“Acre for acre, I think the gas in place here is very comparable to – and in some cases exceeds – some of the good [resources] in the US,” Mark Miller, chief executive of Cuadrilla, said
A Lancashire cabbage field might appear an unlikely frontier in the quest for new energy reserves.
Yet 10,000ft beneath the mud and vegetables of this farm near Blackpool lies the Bowland shale rock formation, a subterranean seam holding enough natural gas to provide a significant boost to British energy supplies.
That, at least, is the belief of Cuadrilla Resources, a UK-based company with a licence to explore for shale gas across 437 square miles of Lancashire.
Its ambitions have been spurred by the example of the US, where the extraction of gas from shale rock has transformed the domestic energy market. Shale gas accounted for only 1 per cent of total US production in 2000, but 20 per cent by 2009.
The UK’s shale resources are probably not big enough to achieve the same feat – and nor are the legal conditions present – but experts believe that gas of this kind could still prove an important discovery.
Britain has 150bn cubic metres of recoverable shale resources, according to the British Geological Survey, enough to cover the country’s gas requirement for 18 months. Other estimates are more optimistic: the US Department of Energy puts the UK’s shale resources at 560bcm.
So far, however, Cuadrilla is the only company to have begun drilling. Last week, it “spudded” the Becconsall exploration well outside Blackpool, opening the latest phase of its $100m campaign.
The company will disclose its first estimate for the amount of shale gas inside its license area on September 21. While declining to give any figures, Mark Miller, chief executive of Cuadrilla, said: “They’re exceeding expectations. We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing.” He added: “Acre for acre, I think the gas in place here is very comparable to – and in some cases exceeds – some of the good [resources] in the US.”
If his optimism is vindicated, Mr Miller said Cuadrilla would seek to enter the production phase. That would require clearance from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, along with local planning permission for the use of production rigs.
But Paul Stevens, senior energy research fellow at Chatham House, a think-tank, said “huge optimism” for shale gas production in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, was “misplaced at this stage”.
The conditions that exist in the US do not prevail on this side of the Atlantic. American landowners have every incentive to allow drilling on their property: the law gives them possession of any subsoil resources. In the UK, however, any shale gas would be the property of the state.
Moreover, the US has developed a service industry around shale gas production, with 199 active rigs in the Barnett Shale Play, a single area of Texas. Cuadrilla, by contrast, possesses the only operational shale rig in Britain. “In 10-15 years, shale gas will be produced in Europe and it could even be quite important, but it’s not going to be the gamechanger it was in the US,” said Mr Stevens.
There are also environmental concerns. Drilling to depths of 10,000ft means penetrating the water table, raising fears about possible contamination. Gas is extracted from shale rock using jets of high pressure water, a process known as “fracking”.
This procedure, conducted at Cuadrilla’s earlier exploration wells, coincided with two minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May. The tremors were too weak to cause any damage and small seismic events of this kind occur about 20 times a year in England. Nonetheless, an investigation is under way to establish whether they were linked to fracking.
This event stirred some opposition to Cuadrilla and a protest camp is set to be established near the drilling rig. Philip Mitchell, chair of the Blackpool Green party, who will join the demonstration, said possible pollution was a key concern. “Once an aquifer is contaminated, you won’t be able to do anything about it. You can’t remove pollution from an aquifer because it’s an underground water body, and that could cause health problems for decades to come.”
But Mark Menzies, the local Conservative MP, judged that his constituents were “broadly, cautiously supportive” of the drilling. “The main reason is that people realise the UK’s gas resources are being depleted. Unless we want to find ourselves increasingly dependent on imported gas, then we do have to start looking for alternative supplies,” he said.
The government is more lukewarm: it wants to encourage nuclear power generation and renewable energy, not a new source of fossil fuel.