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Shale Gas Discovery Should Be A Cause For Celebration In UK

The prize of European shale gas is in sight. The question is whether it will become the subject of further politicised, unwinnable ideological battles, or a driver of environmental, economic and geopolitical revival.

As a geology student, I tramped over the bleak, beautiful Bowland Fells in northern England without suspecting the treasure that lay beneath. Yet, happening to meet geologist Peter Turner at a recent conference, I heard big news: shale gas has been found in the fells and elsewhere in the UK.

Cuadrilla Resources, where Mr Turner is vice president for exploration, revealed its secret: the company had discovered 200 trillion cubic feet of gas under the fells. This find has major implications for the company, country, environmentalists and gas exporters.

Shale gas is trapped in fine-grained rocks and cannot be extracted economically by conventional methods.

The gas has been a geological curiosity for more than a century, but new combinations of drilling horizontally, and hydraulically fracturing the rock by injecting water and sand under pressure, have unlocked enormous resources.

Just last year, a UK government report thought shale gas reserves might reach 5 trillion cu ft. Cuadrilla has already found many times that. Assuming sustained commercial production is achieved, Bowland alone can yield more than twice the UK’s conventional gas reserves.

There is potential for shale gas elsewhere: in the south-eastern county of Kent, the south coast, the Mendip Hills in the west, the east Midlands, and Scotland’s Midland Valley.

The UK economy is struggling. Gas production declined a record 25 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and gas imports alone account for more than 10 per cent of the trade deficit. Oil and gas prices are high and too few power stations are being built. Renewable energy is growing fast but at high cost and is a long way short of meeting the deficit.

Gas is clean, and produces only half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, making it a key part of tackling global warming. All these factors might suggest that Cuadrilla’s find would be welcomed.

Instead, the complete opposite.

Even the usually sensible Economist opined that “the finds will not solve Britain’s energy problems”. The left-leaning Independent and Guardian newspapers have come out in strong opposition, not mentioning a single positive in their coverage.

Shale gas opponents gleefully repeat a well-rehearsed tirade of complaints, many false, the others half-truths at best. They complain that hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water aquifers (physically impossible) or that gas can leak into homes (erroneously claimed in the US documentary Gasland, but very unlikely with good practices and regulation).

Worries about water consumption are raised, but the 6 million gallons required for each well can be supplied from seawater, and an average golf course uses more water every month.

The fracturing fluids are said to be toxic (latest formulations are safe enough to drink). Cuadrilla’s operations might have been linked to two small earthquakes this year, but these tremors were too minor for most people even to have felt them.

There are claims that the process produces more greenhouse gases than burning coal – with very dubious assumptions. The idea that the industry would allow 10 per cent of the valuable gas it extracts simply to leak into the air is highly unlikely.

These concerns are being used as cover for environmental fundamentalism: there is no attempt to distinguish between shale gas production done carelessly and that done well with modern safeguards.

The underlying concern is that abundant, cheap gas will undermine the fashionable dogma demanding a wholesale transition to expensive renewable energy, with the consequent curbs on economic growth.

Advocating energy poverty for the less well-off seems a strange position for supposedly progressive media.

In reality, gas is a crucial part of replacing coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, and backing up intermittent supplies of wind and solar power. Combined with carbon capture and storage, gas can be one of the mainstays of the global energy system for the rest of the century.

The Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom, worried by competition from shale gas, cynically described the shale gas extraction process as a danger to drinking water. Environmentalists should be concerned about ending up on the same side as the Kremlin.

In France, hydraulic fracturing has been banned. We might speculate about the influence of the strong nuclear power lobby in this decision.

It is noticeable that interest in shale gas in Germany and eastern Europe has been led not by the big continental monopolies that benefit from their cosy relationship with Gazprom but by smaller companies and American newcomers.

Though environmental and political opposition may block shale gas in some countries, Poland and Ukraine need it to turn the feared Russian bear into a paper tiger. A post-nuclear Germany may realise it can neither turn back to coal nor convert entirely to renewable energy.

The prize of European shale gas is in sight. The question is whether it will become the subject of further politicised, unwinnable ideological battles, or a driver of environmental, economic and geopolitical revival.

Robin Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon

The National, 4 October 2011