Fracking ambitions and lots of wells – clarifying estimates.

I caused a minor twitter ripple last week after claims I made in the House about the number of wells that might need to be drilled across the UK to achieve various stated ambitions for shale gas recovery.

I’ve checked back on the Hansard record for last week, and I think it’s fair to say that , during a brief speech I was not crystal clear about what the figures I set out referred to . So here’s the clarification. Although having said that, the clarification will also inevitably be a bit vague, because we have only very general estimates about how much shale gas there may be in the UK, how much of it is actually recoverable, and how any wells drilled in the UK might perform in practice.  We do, however, have some data about well performance and lifetimes from the U.S, but even then we need to be a bit cautious about transferring this directly to the scenario here in the UK.  What we also know from the US is that, individually, shale gas wells do not produce much gas compared with, say, a North Sea gas well. Nor do they produce gas over a very long period either; they deplete on a steep curve after the initial fracking has taken place.

Some shale gas propagandists will quote selectively from very well performing wells to make their case, but if we are producing over a large area, and over time, we need to be much more measured, and take averages on performance and life of different wells in different places as our yard sticks. I’ve previously quoted some 2009 work on well lifetimes. There seems to be a reasonable level of agreement that their economically productive lives are about seven or eight years in length.

There is less agreement on what an average range of lifetime production might be. The work I looked at suggested an average of about 0.81 bcf (billion cubic feet) of gas extracted per well but the US Geological survey can be cut several ways.  Looking at the general averages gives about 1.25 bcf per well, a recent UK Institute of directors report (funded by Cuadrilla) came up with an improbable average production per well of 3.2 bcf.

So I’ve taken a low average and a medium average as my estimate points  – the 0.81bcf, and point double that (1.62bcf per well) – more than the US geological survey average, but half the IoD sum.

So how might those figures translate into possible well numbers when set against recent claims?

Claim one is that we should aim to exploit about 10% of the shale gas resource under the ground in the UK.  That 10% would probably then be based on the British Geological society’s estimate of what reserves are in the Bowland shale in the North of England, where most of the richest seams are located , plus some lesser reserves elsewhere in the Country. BGS estimates that there is about 1300 trillion cubic feet in the Bowland shale, so let’s say there may be another 500 tcf elsewhere in the country, making a 10% recovery of the total resource about 180 tcf. On my medium estimate of lifetime well output that comes to about 110,000 wells. And that is the basis of my claim in Parliament that this would be the sort of range (I suggested 100,000 to 107,000) of wells that we would need to anticipate being drilled across the UK. This would perhaps be an average of about 160-170 per constituency, but clearly higher in those areas with rich gas seams underneath them such as Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The lower average figure would of course mean about twice as many wells needing to be drilled.

Claim two is the more modest aim of providing some sort of underpinning to the UK’s gas demand over a period, perhaps 10% of the total. This would require far fewer wells to be drilled, but still a substantial number. UK gas demand per annum comes to about 3 trillion cubic feet, so if the ambition was to substitute 10% of UK gas supplies with shale for a 50 year supply period, about 15 tcf  would need to be recovered – the job of about 18000 wells on my lower output, and 9000 on my higher average output.  These wells, as  I pointed out in the Parliamentary debate, would be grouped into double, football-pitch-sized ‘pads’  perhaps containing six wells each. This would mean a ‘lowest case’ scenario (10% UK gas requirement higher output per well) of about two pads per constituency to a barely imaginable ‘highest case’ scenario (10% exploitation of overall reserves, lower average estimate output per well) of  fifty or more pads per constituency. My estimate in Parliament of 18 pads per constituency was somewhere between the two.

What ought to be emphasised, in concluding all this, is that not all these wells would be drilled at once, which is sort of good news. Except that shale gas in production would not look like Wytch Farm in Dorset, where a quiet nodding donkey extracts oil from a drilled well over a long period of time. There would need to be, in order to maintain a supply, fairly continuous redrilling, with attendant trucks, water, chemicals and so on in areas where there are reasonably exploitable reserves.

No doubt this expanded and more qualified estimate will bring down a little more opprobrium on my head but the bottom line is this: any serious level of shale gas exploitation in the UK will inevitably bring about something like the numbers of wells I’ve set out here. The exact number will depend on the degree of ambition.  And if we are to press the button on shale gas, that is what we need to accept as a consequence. Whether we conclude that it’s worth it for what we might get out of the ground, or whether we decide that there are alternative, lower carbon ways of proceeding is what should now be seriously debated between us.


9 thoughts on “Fracking ambitions and lots of wells – clarifying estimates.

  1. Alan: The basic mistake people make about shale is that they assume that the future is a continuation of the past. Looking today at report from even last year, let alone two or three years ago, as Paul Stephens of Chatham House or Pøyry or Florency Geny of OIES have done, in which they predict shale in the UK in 2016 and beyond as simply a continuation of 2008 or 09, does not give an accurate picture at all.
    When the above, and the Energy and Climate Change Committee in their 2011 report, were published, the production was far lower than today, drilling times were three weeks (and today are as little as five days) and horizontal laterals were 1,000 feet instead of up several miles as today. Fifty per cent of all wells in the US today are from multi well pads, often over ten or over.

    Wytch Farm is not a good example as it is a conventional well that declines too: It was over 100,000 bd at one point and is 20,000 today. Yet they still are drilling wells- over a dozen the past year. And the millionaire 1% of Sandbanks aren’t any the wiser.

    I remember when the Labour Party was for working people. You seem to be chasing the Waitrose vote. They don’t have to count pennies because their utility bills rise and rise and rise. They can afford to go
    green to assuage their guilt of having good pensions from the past. A lot more people go to Lidl and Netto: Working people. There are a hell of a lot more of them than rich greens who would never vote Labour anyway.

    Socialists with balls as in France and Germany treat greens for what they are: People who believe in magical solutions just to make them feel less guilty for raping the earth from their jobs in the City. You should learn from them.

    • I’m a green socialist. I am neither rich nor shop at Waitrose. Or Lidl, or Netto, however I do work, but not in the city. I shop in the High Street to support my local farmers, and campaign against fracking because it will poison the water that feeds the fields I eat from. Where, incidentally do you suppose the food you buy at Lidl comes from? Are you confident it is flown in from abroad so won’t become contaminated by chemical leaching? Curious to know.

      • Sophie Bird ,

        Fraccing hasn’t poisoned the water in America so why do you think it will poison the water here ?

        There is currently no alternative to hydrocarbons for domestic and industrial heating or transportation .

        This is going to make us less reliant on imports .

        What households dispose of down the sink and down the toilet continuously and what farmers spread on their lands year in year out are the real threat to water quality .

    • Nick, There is a deafening silence from pro-fracking advocates like yourself on the number of wells that will be required for meeting even a fraction of the hyped boasts for shale gas in the UK. I suggest you put your maths where your mouth is.

      And don’t say you don’t know, because, because…

      You can come up with a range that would justify the suggestion we can meet the UK gas demand for 30 or 40 years. How many wells on your calculation will that take?

      And where, since you claim to be an expert on shale gas, is the industry experience that can offer us a well pad of ten or twelve vertical wells each with three or four horizontals? I suggest you can not supply a single existing facility such as Cuadrilla are promoting. This is pie in the sky. Future technology not even today’s. You can not knock down Alan’s figures on the basis of science fiction.

      As I say, come up with your estimates and we’ll all perhaps pay more attention to your outbirsts.

    • Nick, stick to the facts. not political abuse. In France and Germany the argument goes against fracking, as you well know. For very good reasons. The worst example you could quote to support your extreme and paid-for views.

    • Interesting to read that Nick Grealy, (who styles himself ShaleGasExpert on Twitter) said in August that “Wytch Farm is not a good example as it is a conventional well”.

      Of course this was before the narrative changed and we were all sudden;y told Wytch Farm was in fact fracked – but it seems that even the industry’s paid propagandists didn’t know eh? How delightful 🙂

  2. Just a point, Nick. Netto ceased to exit quite a while ago now. Asda bought up its UK stores.
    This is a bit of a tangent, but so was your above comment re supermarkets. Are you trying to make the point that shale will reduce costs to the consumers? If so you ought to focus on that argument (although there is quite a lot of evidence to show that UK consumers won’t see the direct finanicial benefits of the gas fracking in reduced energy bills). Everyone wants cheaper energy bills but as fossil fuels run out and the temparature of the earth begins to rise, it is the job of policy makers to safeguard both energy security and the future of the world we live in. It is important to take all factors and methods of generation into account and judge them on balance, weighing different supply sources up against each other. Petty remarks of the kind above don’t add anything to this debate.

  3. New Zealand’s area is 103,416 sq. miles and its population about 3,600,000. That’s 0.287 square miles for every person

    The UK has an area of about 94,060 square miles and a current population of 63.7 million, that’s 0.00148 square miles per person. So we are hundreds of times more densely populated.

    Now in Texas, Barnhart, an underestimate of water consumption per fracking well is 8 million gallons. So multiply that by the amount of wells you think we’ll need. It’s not just the water consumption that’s the problem here (remember that the UK imports 75.2% of all of the water it needs from mainly drought prone countries – see its what happens to the contaminated waste water from the fracking process itself.

    In New Zealand, the fracking companies pay farmers to allow them to discharge the contaminated fracking water (it contains lead, mercury, arsenic amongst other nasties) onto their land – the farmers can make the same amount of money from doing nothing as they can from the dairy industry – so why work and have the stress of falling profit margins?.

    But once the water drains away, it leaves the contaminants behind on highly valuable agricultural and pastoral land. The grass – and any other crops – takes it up and so it enters the food chain. We know from the chemical poisoning of Vietnam that 40 years on – the land is still too dangerous to farm – or even enter and that it has caused horrific genetic defects in the local population many years after the Americans had left. We know that all over the world, the mis-selling of GM seed is resulting in similar highly toxic chemical cocktails of drugs entering local water supplies and causing a brand new form of kidney disease in young, otherwise healthy people and animals (google ‘Island of the Widows’) and we know that arsenic is now in organic rice caused by the spread of contaminated water from upstream.

    In New Zealand, Fonterra has now vowed to stop sourcing milk from land affected by oil and fracking waste (

    In America, the EPA want the level of arsenic in water to be reduced below 10 parts per Billion – due to the health risks. For those cynics out there – that’s equivalent to a homeopathic dose of 6C which, in drinking water is now found to cause harm

    Governments, the World Bank and multi-nationals like Nestles and Monsanto want global water resources to be a commodity – to be sold to the highest bidder – it enables them to extract profit from it but also enslaves the global population to ‘free commerce’ and ‘trade’. This is why the people of Barnhart in Texas have no water in their taps now – they can not financially out-compete the transient fracking companies so they have had to stop farming and may have to leave the area altogether as there is no water.

    What I want to know is, what is the UK government’s food security plan for the future; how will it ensure that our aquifers are not exhausted or contaminated by the fracking companies, and where will the contaminated wastewater go?

    I want to see the independent global Risk Assessment that David Cameron must surely – as a ‘responsible’ Prime Minister – have ensured he had understood before urging the people of the UK to get behind fracking, He was elected to serve the citizens of the UK and has responsibility for our future generations – he is not elected by or for businesses seeking to make a short term profit from our natural resources and I want to see the rationale as to why the decision has been given to support fracking at a time when the government is supposed to be signed up to the Precautionary Principle as regards sustainable development and the risk of environmental harm

    Given that all over America Drs and public health officials are writing letters protesting about the health concerns associated with fracking, I want to know why David Cameron discounts last years EU report which highlighted the high risk to human health of fracking within the EU and how he reached his conclusion that it was safe.

    I want to know what pressure David Cameron then placed on the EU to, less than 6 months later, change its position. Is this the price DC sort for trying to keep the UK in Europe?

    More than anything, I want the opposition to start doing their job. Because if they don’t, they will become responsible for sorting this mess for the rest of our shortened lives.

  4. Of course another problem with fracking wells is that individually, they may fall below the size of operation for which pollution emissions reporting is required, yet cumulatively, their impact can be great. This is certainly the case in USA where the Clean Air Act does not apply to the pollution from fracking wells as they are not allowed to be aggregated, despite local residents suffering serious health impacts from the toxic airborne emissions.

    What safeguards are being introduced in the UK to ensure that we do not end up with similar probems ? The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advised that a comprehensive study to definitively conclude whether specific contaminants from a specific source are the same ones that are making people sick could cost upwards of $100 million. – so anyone falling ill is dismissed as an individual complainant whilst the industry ‘makes ‘healthwash’ style platitudes expressing an “understandable need for further research and concern for the health of individuals” whilst not doing anything.

    Why do we always rely on industry experts – when they have a clearly vested interest in not proving harm, anyway?

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