What's Next for Frac'ing in the UK?

Activists, economics, possible Russian interference, impede development

As AAPG’s International Conference and Exhibition heads to London this fall, it will coincide with an anniversary of sorts.

Almost a year ago to the day, back in October of 2016, the British government overturned a decision by local planners in Lancashire, a city 200 miles northeast of London, to allow Cuadrilla, a privately-owned British exploration company, to once again conduct hydraulic fracturing operations in the region. This follows a decision earlier that year by the government to allow another company to frac in North Yorkshire, meaning, for the first time in five years, there would be frac’ing on both sides of the Pennines, a range of mountains that separate northwest and northeast England.

To understand why there was a prohibition in the first place against frac’ing in Lancashire, you have to go back to 2011, when Cuadrilla had to case a well drilled at its Preese Hall site, due to an earthquake, for which the company didn’t deny being “probably responsible,” according to a company statement at the time.

After Preese Hall, frac’ing throughout the UK became even more contentious and regulated than it had been, which is saying something (more on that to follow), so this approval, along with four other sites approved by last year, seemed to indicate the government was now firmly behind shale/gas exploration, which, some experts believe, could conceivably release 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas.

(Cuadrilla officials say there may be 200 trillion cubic feet in Lancashire alone.)

“Without drilling several wells and putting them through long production tests, no one knows, but given the time and money spent by the operators, they obviously think it is a lot,” said Richard Selley, emeritus professor of petroleum geology and senior research fellow at Imperial College in London.

‘Violent Opposition’

From the gov.uk website page “Guidance on fracking (sic): developing shale gas in the UK”:

“The government believes that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. We are encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential. The UK has a strong regulatory regime for exploratory activities, and over 50 years of experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry nationally. We are bringing that experience to bear and measures are in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent environmental contamination, mitigate seismic activity and minimise greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not so fast, said Selley.

Image Caption

Cuadrilla’s operation at Preese Hall. Photo courtesy of Cuadrilla Resources.

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As AAPG’s International Conference and Exhibition heads to London this fall, it will coincide with an anniversary of sorts.

Almost a year ago to the day, back in October of 2016, the British government overturned a decision by local planners in Lancashire, a city 200 miles northeast of London, to allow Cuadrilla, a privately-owned British exploration company, to once again conduct hydraulic fracturing operations in the region. This follows a decision earlier that year by the government to allow another company to frac in North Yorkshire, meaning, for the first time in five years, there would be frac’ing on both sides of the Pennines, a range of mountains that separate northwest and northeast England.

To understand why there was a prohibition in the first place against frac’ing in Lancashire, you have to go back to 2011, when Cuadrilla had to case a well drilled at its Preese Hall site, due to an earthquake, for which the company didn’t deny being “probably responsible,” according to a company statement at the time.

After Preese Hall, frac’ing throughout the UK became even more contentious and regulated than it had been, which is saying something (more on that to follow), so this approval, along with four other sites approved by last year, seemed to indicate the government was now firmly behind shale/gas exploration, which, some experts believe, could conceivably release 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas.

(Cuadrilla officials say there may be 200 trillion cubic feet in Lancashire alone.)

“Without drilling several wells and putting them through long production tests, no one knows, but given the time and money spent by the operators, they obviously think it is a lot,” said Richard Selley, emeritus professor of petroleum geology and senior research fellow at Imperial College in London.

‘Violent Opposition’

From the gov.uk website page “Guidance on fracking (sic): developing shale gas in the UK”:

“The government believes that shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. We are encouraging safe and environmentally sound exploration to determine this potential. The UK has a strong regulatory regime for exploratory activities, and over 50 years of experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry nationally. We are bringing that experience to bear and measures are in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent environmental contamination, mitigate seismic activity and minimise greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not so fast, said Selley.

He is happy, but not particularly sanguine, because that was written in 2013.

“Even if all opposition to hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and oil was to be suddenly lifted, there is no way that there will be a big impact on UK energy production for many years. There are not the drilling rigs, hydraulic fracturing units or personnel in the country,” he said.

Selley, who has published more than 70 papers and has consulted on projects in Australia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, as well as America, said, “There is still violent opposition to frac’ing shale gas and oil” in the UK.

Worse, he believes, this sentiment never ends, even in the presence of scientific evidence.

“As objections are shown to be unimportant, one by one, new objections are thought up,” he said, concluding there are risks to hydraulic fracturing — fatuous ones.

The inanity, he said of the objections, is stultifying.

“These are becoming increasingly risible and reached a new high on October 10, 2015, when the environmental group ‘Friends of the Earth’ declared that hydraulic fracturing should be banned because it uses sand, which is a carcinogen,” Selly explained.

So, he wonders, why don’t they just issue warnings: “Do not take your kiddies to the seaside!”

The other reason for his skepticism, he said, has to do with economic factors already in play.

“As North Seas gas production declines, more shale gas had to be imported—from the US—which, he said, double negative effect on of loss of revenue and on the UK’s balance of payments— issues beyond the concern of local protestors.”

Speaking more specifically about the opposition to frac’ing in the UK — what’s driving it — Selley, who has received a Certificate of Merit from AAPG, as well as a Coke Medal from the Geological Society of London, said it is coming from an unlikely source, but not an unthinkable one.

“Reliable sources in NATO and personal anecdotes have evidence that the Europe-wide opposition to frac’ing is driven by Russia, especially Russia TV,” he said.

It sounds crazy — he knows it does — but added, “Last year these reports might not have been believed, but after allegations of Russian ‘dirty tricks’ in the U.S. Presidential election, this is now more credible.”

And, it’s worth noting that Russia holds a longstanding monopoly on Europe’s natural gas supply.

Dunning-Kruger Effect?

At the moment, and irrespective of the Russian involvement (if it exists), Selley would consider it a victory if those who didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to frac’ing and its dangers listened to those who do.

“There is prevailing lack of trust in experts, there is mistrust of the veracity of reports evaluating the risks and rewards of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and oil,” he said, adding that even reports by independent academics — because these same academics also, at times, work as consultants and are being seen as biased and contaminated.

“It is argued that academics, or ‘Fracademics,’ as we are termed, can only know anything about the topic because we work as consultants and/or have research grants funded by the industry. Therefore we cannot be seen as independent. ‘Fracademics’ must have a conflict of interest,” said Selley. “Following this argument to its logical conclusion, the government should commission reports on the technical issues of hydraulic fracturing to geologists with expertise in dinosaur locomotion and engineers studying the tilt of the leaning tower of Pisa.”

Work to Be Done

When it comes to the future of frac’ing in the UK, he sees it in somewhat of a unique position, especially as how it relates to Europe.

“In France, shale gas/oil resources have never been tested because they banned frac’ing from day one,” he said, adding that the opposition might be because the country runs on nuclear power.

“Ditto for the Netherlands and Germany with strong green lobbies. Germany is now importing coal from the U.S. and re-opening opencast lignite (really dirty brown coal) mines generating the press headline ‘Germany turns from green to black’!” he added.

It seems the UK, more than the rest of Europe, needs shale to be a robust part of the equation. There are some promising developments.

“In the Weald basin of southern England, there is excitement over possible production of shale oil. Wells drilled for conventional Upper Jurassic sand reservoirs have yielded significant flows of oil from naturally fractured limestones thinly interbedded with Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge clay source rock,” said Selley.

There’s hope, there’s work to be done, and there’s this:

“I have been a cheerleader for UK shale gas since I identified the UK’s resources 30 years ago.”

Cuadrilla’s operation at Preese Hall. Photo courtesy of Cuadrilla Resources.

Richard Selley, emeritus professor of petroleum geology and senior research fellow at Imperial College, will present “United Kingdom Shale Gas (& Oil) Exploration From 1875 to Now” during the AAPG-SEG International Conference and Exhibition (ICE), which will be held Oct. 15-18 in London.

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