In some respects, the UK has been among the most successful countries in the world in action against climate change in recent decades. Yet that progress could be reversed and thrown away for a few years of slightly cheaper gas for a few people and a lot of profits for even fewer people.
This is because new Prime Minister Liz Truss has pledged to lift the 2019 ban on shale gas fracking in England. It is true that the transition to low-carbon energy has never been easy. But shale gas is methane, a high-carbon fossil fuel, while fracking has already been tried unsuccessfully in the UK and its re-emergence is not based on new evidence that can materially change the results. This is not an act based on data but on desperation and dogma.
The first problem is that there is simply not enough gas. For fracking to become a profitable large-scale business in the UK, a very large geological resource of shale gas is essential. The enthusiasm for UK shale gas trials between 2011 and 2019 was founded on government-commissioned reports from the British Geological Survey (BGS), which predicted that there may be many tens of years of gas supply under the ‘Central and northern England, south-eastern England and central Scotland.
But such ratios are explicitly speculative and always calculate the maximum possible resource. Usually, after more detailed work, commercially viable reserves do not exceed 10% of the original estimate.
In the UK, exploratory drilling results were mostly negative. The drilling triggered multiple small and several medium earthquakes. And to add further insult, rock samples were analyzed which found they contained only small amounts of extractable gas or oil.
What there is of gas and oil is not at the same extreme underground pressures found in the most successful shale fields in the United States and Canada. These high pressures are a sign that there is a lot of easily extractable fuel.
The idea that the UK has such a huge potential shale gas resource assumes that its shales have not already generated gas, that the potential is yet to come. However, the laboratory results show that the gas has already been generated in these rocks in the geological past. Over the course of millions of years, Britain’s landmass has been buried, raised, buried again and eroded. This complex geological history has provided many opportunities for gas to escape through the country’s many faults and cracks so that only the lees remain. If the UK wants to develop a large American-style fracking industry, it’s 280 million years too late.
Read More: How We Find Out That UK Shale Gas Reserves Are At Least 80% Smaller Than Thought
Widespread skepticism and distrust
Even if enough gas is discovered, there is the enormous challenge of bringing in specialized equipment and skilled people to carry out the drilling and development. Thousands of drilling operations in ten years will be required to produce abundant gas for the country. Disposing of huge amounts of salty and radioactive wastewater is another really big challenge.
It is therefore not surprising that the UK government is cautious in saying that local residents’ agreement is required before fracking can move forward. As fracking has had a difficult history in the UK and was only imposed from above by the David Cameron government, there is widespread skepticism and distrust among communities that have been affected by the proposed drilling.
These doubts can perhaps be converted into acceptance by prolonged dialogue, providing better information and building trust, but that takes years. Another option proposed by some shale developers would be to make direct cash payments to local residents and communities, up to 6% of initial income in some cases. The United States shows that sharing the financial spoils can provide quick paths to change your mind. But strict regulation is needed to prevent shale developers from paying a community to support development, then quickly get out of an area once the gas has run out and abandon the aftermath. A fractured well drilled in 2019 near Preston is still unobstructed.
The UK had a lot of onshore shale oil and gas a long time ago. But because the country has a wrong geological history, that oil and gas are long gone, flowing along the abundant faults and fractures. American and Canadian geology is much simpler, which is why their shale gas is still there.
Solar and wind produce cheaper electricity than gas, and methane leaks are measurably warming the world. The International Energy Agency and the IPCC both make it very clear that fossil fuel production must decline rapidly. Why should the UK destroy its best international reputation and future world-leading clean energy industries? Fracking in the UK presents multiple commercial and technical challenges that may or may not be overcome, it has an immense legacy of public perception to convert, and the environmentally acceptable path is very unclear.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Stuart Haszeldine receives research funding from the UK research councils EPSRC and NERC and SGN Scottish Gas Networks. Funding for hydrogen research from Horizon Europe and EPSRC. He is a member of the BEIS CCUS Council and voluntarily advises NECCUS to coordinate CCS developments in Scotland