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.

Constructive things to do with a fracking drill rig no 106.

Oo-er, it's a well head.

Oo-er, it’s a well head.


So Ed (Davey, that is) has spoken, and all is now OK with fracking. There are those, like Ed’s deputy, Michael Fallon, who have always thought that pulling as much gas out of difficult rock formations as possible is a great idea, but Ed’s speech to the Royal Society last week was, I think, designed to reassure those who worry about fracking and could do with a little soothing. However, I’m not sure that it has had the intended effect. Most of the soothing we already know – that fracking done properly probably won’t compromise water sources; that it probably will not cause dangerous earthquakes; that we need gas in the energy system for some years to come and so on.

We also know (or should) that there will be plenty of gas around to fulfil our system’s needs over the next twenty years without drilling holes all over the country. And that drilling and producing from the huge number of wells across the country that would make up the sort of production levels that Ed now clearly envisages might be a problem in its own right. The debate, I would have thought, ought not to be about whether some wells are drilled to test for resource, which is what the above wider issue is being smuggled in under cover of, but should be in terms of that wider issue itself. Which Ed is clearly signalling at by suggesting that some of the proceeds of this widespread drilling that we don’t really talk about could be placed into a ‘sovereign wealth fund’. A fund that will only become significant if all those pads across the country actually do appear with the wells on them.

I guess, however, that we may well all quieten down at the prospect of a few wells being relatively safely drilled for exploratory purposes. And then we’ll have to watch as they turn, incrementally, into the rash of plants necessary for the realisation of the investment in exploration. We might regret being so quiet about it then.

In the meantime, here is another thought about what you might do to produce the sort of energy you might reasonably expect to get, one way or another, by drilling those fracking holes. I’ve ruminated on the comparative economics of producing far more climate friendly gas from an extensive roll-out of anaerobic digestion plants. You could perhaps go a bit further than that, and use almost exactly the same drill plants to produce another low-carbon equivalent, and drill for geothermal energy. Interestingly, geothermal drilling does involve almost the same processes up to a point – you drill a deep hole, you find a resource, and water gushes up. Except, on this occasion, you don’t need to inject a huge amount of water and chemicals, and then collect it and dispose of it as hazardous waste. Because the water IS the resource, coming up as hot water at about 74 degrees Celsius. When you’ve taken the heat out of it, you just put it in the sea.

I know a little about this since Southampton, from where I’m writing this piece, has had a geothermal well producing heat (and cooling) for most of the major public and commercial buildings for well over thirty years; energy we might otherwise have been getting from gas-fired boilers in individual boiler rooms over the same period. It arises from a single well head, romantically sited in the car park of the local Toys R Us store. Yes, it’s that threatening. And by the way, geothermal wells do deplete (eventually) by about a degree or so in temperature over a hundred years. So you don’t need to redrill every eight years.

Unfortunately, our friendly neighbourhood well in Southampton is currently the only geothermal heat producing well in the country, but things are stirring. It has been estimated that the geothermal resource (like shale gas, not available uniformly across the country) could supply the equivalent of almost ten gigawatts of installed electricity capacity, or 100 gw of heat per year. The Government’s modest support programme for resource proving in 2010, together with the Renewable Heat Incentive may well get some further projects under way soon. For instance, there is such a project currently underway in Manchester, being promoted by GT Energy, the leading UK geothermal development company. But this is a pinprick compared with what could and should be done. Technically, and economically, there is no reason why perhaps 15% of the UK’s 2030 Renewables Target cannot be provided by geothermal.

Two problems though. Firstly, will all the drill rigs needed to establish viable geothermal plants have been commandeered by gas-hungry frackers over the next few years? Secondly, even if they are not, might some members of the public not mistake a drill rig hard at work on getting hot water out of the ground not think it’s a fracking well and blockade it? It would be nice to think that neither problem will arise and large numbers of places, like Southampton, will be geothermally warmed in years to come. Doesn’t quite look like it right now though.