It’s shale – the clean green gas of the future! (official).


Green giant?

The new wonder substance shale gas, is apparently now, according to ministers, not only bursting to get out of the ground from the solid rock within which it is currently encased at record breaking rates, but has hitherto unknown qualities as a sunrise fuel of the future. The Prime Minister himself, at the recent liaison committee meeting considered it to be ‘clean energy’ and in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, went further in declaring it to constitute ‘green energy’. Michael Fallon the Energy Minister (who I congratulate for adding ‘Minister  for Portsmouth’ to his already bulging portfolio bag) referred to ‘shale gas …and other  renewables’ on a recent Today programme appearance, and praised it as ‘one of the cleaner fuels’ in DECC Questions today, (Thursday).

I was hoping to ask the Energy Secretary at these questions whether he agreed with the Prime Minister’s assessment of Shale as ‘green energy’ and if so would production qualify for ‘contracts for difference’ when they come in, but the session unfortunately ran out of time.

So is shale clean, green and so on? Of course not. Had the Energy minister answered an admirably succinct question from my colleague, Ian Lavery, at Energy Questions on the emissions level of shale gas instead of just saying that the Chief Scientist has undertaken a report on its emission levels, he would be under no doubt by now. For the report itself quite clearly states that shale has ‘comparable emissions to gas extracted from conventional sources’ and falls in the range, for generating purposes of 423 – 535 grams per kilowatt hour. In other words, a bit cleaner than coal but not very ‘clean’ and certainly not ‘green’.

So just a series of co-incidental  mistakes then? I wonder.  The point of it all, I think is to start to position shale somehow as a vital, low carbon component of Britain’s energy mix in the future. Because after all, as the same ministers tell us, (non-specifically), ‘gas will continue to play a major role in our energy mix over future years’ even with a continuing commitment to substantial decarbonisation of our energy supply.

True, but what does that role actually look like when you get a little more specific? Or even, dare I suggest, read DECCs own projections, which they have handily set forward in the ‘Gas strategy’ last year? Well, in DECC’s central 2030s scenario of an energy mix averaging 100g per kwh in emissions, it is projected that gas will produce 88 terra watt hours of electricity, or about 22% of all electricity generated. Substantial then, but how substantial? For comparison purposes, we might turn to current output – last year gas produced 28% of electricity, or just over 100 twh of the stuff.

So a considerable downturn on current levels of production, and incidentally, as National Grid points out, easily suppliable at that point by whatever comes from remaining UK gas fields and from gas interconnectors from Norway.

And the conclusion then is…we don’t actually need shale as any sort of replacement gas supply, and nor on DECCs own projections will there be any sort of additional demand for gas that might need to call on shale to fill. The project will therefore not as the Prime Minister mistily declares ‘supply our gas needs for over 30 years’. If we force 7% of the gas out of the rocks using thousands of wells, it will provide some gas for us to sell to others because we won’t need it for UK purposes. Or at best replace some friendly and not exactly insecure Norwegian gas coming our way.  Unless of course one dispenses with all this ‘green crap’ and plugs the UK into the high gas, high emissions scenario beloved (as I have previously reported) of the Chancellor, but requiring the UK to tear up all its climate change legislation and adherence to the carbon budgets it produces.

So it may have a role…to make a lot of money for the Chancellor in sales tax, but clean and green it isn’t and never will be, even if the Prime Minister says it is.

It’s official: not many wells drilled and few casualties…

It’s official, and it comes from a DECC sponsored report.  To get 12 % of our gas supply from fracked gas we’re going to need between 1400-2400 wells over a twenty year period, concentrated on about 30 and 120 well pads (depending on the number of wells per pad). This sounds like quite a few, although perhaps less than some had feared. But even with this number of wells, the report emphasises that water supply might be a problem in some parts of the country. And the waste water generated by the process may also cause quite a headache; as the AMEC strategic assessment report for DECC puts it, the treatment of waste water is likely to place ‘a substantial burden on existing wastewater treatment infrastructure capacity’.

So not a nice picture for some parts of the country, but maybe manageable.

And of course unlikely to be true.

This is because the AMEC strategic assessment is based on what used to be known as ‘inverted pyramid’ research. That is, you take one central (and maybe dubious) proposition, and then research diligently above it, spreading out an ever wider and more convincing array of findings, so that it looks impressive. So long as you don’t knock the original ‘given’ out of place because, if you do, the whole lot crashes down.

The ‘given’ in this instance is, as the report states: an assumed production of 3 billion cubic feet of gas per well (over the lifetime of the well, which is assumed to be 20 years)’.

Eh? We know that shale structures in the UK are very likely to be more complex and hence potentially less productive than the simpler structures in much of the US. But even in highly benign and productive structures such as the Barnett shale in Texas, studies have shown that the lifetime of a well is likely to be about ten years (because of rapid production depletion), with an average lifetime production of about 1.44 billion cubic feet.

The ‘given’ in the AMEC report in effect assumes that on average, each well produces 3 billion cubic feet of gas (with one refracking) which makes the proposed 2400 wells across the country uniformly about the most productive wells anywhere in the world. Not bad going when we still don’t have information about most of the shale plays in the UK.

The ‘given’ here is very much the pivot around which the rest of the well–researched document turns. It informs the estimations of the water needed, the waste water generated, the truck movements, and the extent to which environmental considerations are taken into account.

I’ve looked through the report to see whether there is any justification for the assumption. There isn’t as far as I can see. It just appears and then isn’t mentioned further. Which causes me to think…AMEC are a very good and reputable research consultancy and I doubt that they would have made this figure up. So where did it come from? Was it an instructed assumption in the research brief given to the company by DECC perhaps? If so, then it looks a bit like providing the answer and then asking the research to find out what the questions are, because a researched range of possible lifetime production rates would almost certainly show a far higher number of wells needing to be drilled nationally, with an inevitable far larger effect on water, waste and vehicle movements. Such a conclusion might scare the horses somewhat more than the present report does.

It would be nice to know where the assumption comes from so that we can set ours minds to rest that no one anywhere has sought to manipulate an otherwise objective report in an unseemly direction.

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.