Europe Dallies with Shale Gas Exploration

Massive offshore shale gas reserves exceeding 1,000 trillion cubic feet (tcf) discovered in the UK in April could catapult that country to the top ranks of global producers. The new estimates of technically recoverable gas are at least five times the latest estimate of onshore shale gas: 200 tcf. Some experts argue that no reliable figures are available for the UK, and only about 10% to 20% of total reserves are deemed recoverable. Others contend that the final recoverable figure could make the country energy self-sufficient.

The UK is contemplating the best energy mix to replace its retiring fleet of nuclear and coal-fired power plants—with a capacity of 20 GW, or a quarter of current total generating capacity—by 2020. “Utilities will pursue the most attractive solution under current market conditions, which today is to build gas-fired generation capacity,” the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers projected in an April report. “Indeed, the current defined plans of UK utilities suggest that it is unlikely nuclear and large offshore wind deployment will come online.”

The professional organization points out that UK demand for power is set to double by 2050, while the country has committed itself to ambitious targets to deliver 15% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. “Coupled with tougher competition for finite fuel means climate change mitigation and energy security could be set on a collision course,” the institute’s report claims.

In mid-April, the British Geological Survey advised ministers of Parliament to allow hydraulic fracturing. The practice has been controversial in the UK because, as the partly publically funded geoscience center admits, the first stages of fracking activities at Cuadrilla’s main Blackpool site (Figure 1) evidently caused two small earthquakes last spring (a 2.3-magnitude tremor in April 2011 and a 1.5-magnitude tremor in May). Fracking experts Peter Styles and Brian Baptie advised the government to include a “smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage,” which the Blackpool well did not include, as well as an “an effective monitoring system to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic events [as] part of any future fracking operations.”

1. Falling at the first hurdle. New estimates suggest the UK may have 1,000 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas reserves offshore in the North Sea and as much as 200 million cubic feet onshore. Only one company, Cuadrilla Resources, has been conducting drilling trials—near Blackpool, on the Fylde coast—but it ceased operations after two minor earthquakes were detected in Blackpool last year. This image shows a Cuadrilla drilling rig. Courtesy: Cuadrilla Resources

Meanwhile, energy firms across Europe are assessing the continent’s reserves. Energy services company Schlumberger said in a recent research report that substantial reserves exist in the North Sea—along the German, Dutch, and Danish coasts—as well as in the Baltic Basin.

But the European Commission noted last November in its final report on unconventional gas in the European Union (EU) that shale gas development in most of the confederation’s 27 member countries may be delayed by concerns about seismic activity and polluted groundwater. Poland, Sweden, and Germany have all had shale gas projects on their territory, though most were in the initial phase where limited exploratory drilling had taken place. In France, drilling was only planned before the country instituted a ban on hydraulic fracturing last July.

“The general public attitude in France, Germany and Sweden towards shale gas projects is dominated by concern for the environmental impact of the shale gas activities,” the report says. The French Prohibition Act was adopted without any “substantial prior study” on the consequences of fracking on the environment, and it revoked previously approved authorizations, it notes. This February, following the French precedent, Bulgaria became the world’s second country to ban hydraulic fracturing. Despite that country’s almost complete dependence on imported Russian gas, and technical shale gas reserves estimated at 300 billion cubic meters, Bulgaria cited technology hazards as the reason for its decision.

In early May, Romania’s new left-leaning government pledged a moratorium on shale gas exploration. The previous government, which fell in a confidence vote in late April, had awarded U.S. petroleum company Chevron Corp. exploration rights for shale gas for large areas near the Black Sea in March, which drew criticism from environmentalists.

Poland, also highly dependent on Russian gas resources, is less skeptical about shale gas activities, granting the most authorizations for exploration activities in the EU to date.

Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.