Frack me! UK shale gas bonanza 'bigger than North Sea oil'
Extraction to restart ... until the next tiny tremor
Analysis The government has given the go-ahead for further exploration of the UK's shale gas reserves. Independent surveys suggest these reserves may yield more energy for the nation than North Sea oil.
The shale gas will be collected using induced hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking", which splits rocks thousands of feet below ground using high-pressure liquid.
This is a defeat for environmentalist activists and the powerful renewables lobby - but they have a valuable consolation prize few have noticed. Under the proposed regulatory regime, during the fracking process any tremors that measure 0.5 or higher on the Richter scale may trigger an automatic halt to operations under a "traffic light" scheme outlined by the Lib Dem energy minister Ed Davey.
What does this mean? Well, tremors below magnitude 3.0 are considered to be barely noticeable, and bear in mind that the Richter scale is logarithmic: the energy released by a tremor of magnitude 0.5 is equivalent to the energy released by a large hand grenade.
But don't forget this is happening thousands of feet below the surface: a 0.5 event escapes the detection of all but the most sensitive seismic monitoring equipment.
Yet one 0.5 event alone will be enough to halt fracking and it can only be restarted by the minister. Which, in practice, means it's in the hand of the fanatically pro-wind Whitehall bureaucrats at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
By contrast, the UK consortium Cuadrilla - which halted exploratory fracking near Blackpool in early 2011 after causing two minor earthquakes - uses the German safety standard, one of the world's more conservative standards. This sets the maximum permissible tremor magnitude at 2.6 and recommends mitigation measures if seismic activity exceeds magnitude 1.7 - after which the drillers halt water injection and reduce the pressure on the shale.
Davey admitted that the 0.5 red-light threshold is "far below a perceptible surface event, but larger than the expected level generated by the fracturing of the rock", which he considers "an appropriately precautionary approach". But he admitted: "We received representations in our consultation that this is too cautious."
Environmentalists fear that deep drilling may disturb Silurians,
the race living under the Earth's crust in Dr Who
The combination of fracking and horizontal drilling techniques can be used to unlocked new reserves of exploitable gas. (The combination is also deployed to unlock renewable geothermal energy.) The consequences for the energy market have been dramatic. US gas prices have fallen by two thirds, the country is now self-sufficient on gas - and the United States enjoyed the largest fall in CO2 emissions of any major country as its power generators switched from coal to gas.
Reports suggest that the UK sits on one of the richest deposits of shale gas in the world. An unpublished but independent estimate of UK gas potential by the British Geological Survey suggests it may be more significant to the UK economy than North Sea oil. Cuadrilla initially estimated the UK has enough gas to make it self-sufficient for 15 years at current consumption rates - but this may be underestimated by a factor of four.
We just don't know - and today's announcement allows Cuadrilla to further explore the Bowland Shale in Lancashire.
Shale exploitation and the cheap energy it produces - with lower-than-coal CO2 emissions - poses an existentialist threat to the renewables industry as the stark contrast in price and reliability are inescapable.
On Monday the Mayor of London Boris Johnson characterised objections to fracking as irrational and psychological, writing of the environmentalists:
Beware this new technology, they wail. Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia! Don’t probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger — or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge. Dig out this shale gas, they warn, and our water will be poisoned and our children will be stunted and our cattle will be victims of terrible intestinal explosions.
This is not an original observation. It's one we've made it here before. There is a powerful symbolism in the Earth Goddess Gaia being penetrated. However, here at Vulture Central we fear the fate of any undiscovered subterranean reptile-human hybrids that fracking may disturb. (This is a joke. We are merely extending the environmental lobby's favourite rhetorical weapon - the precautionary principle - to its natural conclusion.)
Curiously, the "carbon capture and storage" systems, which grab CO2 from fossil-fuel power stations and bung it deep underground, are favoured by environmentalists, but they too require fracking. Activists thus find themselves in the peculiar position of praying for earthquakes when shale gas is recovered from fracking, but not when CO2 gas is being buried using fracking.
Energy consultant Nick Grealy, an advocate of shale gas and whose predictions have proved accurate, had some thoughtful advice for the environmental lobby in this piece.
"UK Greens have to start thinking more about climate change and less about the Committee for Climate Change," he wrote.
Taking his point one step further, environmental activists ought to think more about ways to reduce CO2 rather than setting targets for power generation from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. As Voltaire wrote: le mieux est l'ennemi du bien - the best is the enemy of good.
In reality, the renewables target strategy died in George Osborne's autumn mini-budget statement last week. The chancellor said he is looking forward to shale gas production in 2015, and 30 new gas-fired stations.
The installation of a hand-grenade-triggered "red light" is very much a rearguard action. It is very hard to imagine the Ofgem-predicted power cuts rolling across Britain while shale gas extraction machines lie idle, halted by a safety "traffic light".
One rather fears for the safety of the hippies should that ever happen. ®
Get it right next time
Putting aside the possibility that fracking will cause massive earth tremors that will destroy all our homes, infrastructure and civilisation, and focussing on the positives for a second.
One of the side-effects of all the North Sea oil and gas was that the UK basically held a party for itself, with several years of lowered taxes to win elections coupled with lots of spending of the oil revenues on popular programmes. All this was essentially "free" to the taxpayer as the oil companies paid huge amounts for the privilege of sucking oil and gas out of the sea bed.
Now this time it would be nice, assuming the windfall is repeated, if some of those revenues were INVESTED in our future, instead. So how about spending the money on improving transport, making teaching attractive to the talented (instead of just the enthusiastic), becoming a world leader in something other than complaining about the weather and maybe, just maybe building up our manufacturing base, so that this "bonanza" leaves something tangible as it's legacy - apart from millions of falling-down houses.
Who cares about f*** gaya, it is the building style which is the problem
The biggest problem for fracking in the UK is not the pollution, environment, etc - it is the building style driven by what building societies and banks agree to give a mortgage for. If anyone wanted to make a building deliberately earhquake unsafe they would have found no better way to do so than taking the UK standard building practices.
An average UK building built after the 1960-es has two sets of walls with _NO_ vertical structural elements, no horizontal structural elements held together by 2mm metal wires. Its stability to any earth movement is zero. Zilch. Nil. Even the gentlest shake and the wires will get ripped leading to outer or inner wall collapsing on the heads of the occupants.
As a matter of fact we got lucky so far - the Quadrilla quakes were in areas which have seen little recent development so the buildings hit were pre-1950es solid double-brick wall tied by a garden or flemish bond. That style can take a local 3-4 richter scale tremor without any problems. In fact the older ones have taken them on a regular basis during the times when such tremors were induced by mining on a near-daily basis. With these -at the very worst you will get a damaged chimney somewhere. Even those will happen only because the genius who did them initially laid them with non-fireproof mortar out of non-fireproof brick. So they are a hazard anyway and should have been redone long ago.
The yanks do not have that problem - their buildings are built out of wooden panels bolted to a frame so they flex a bit, shake a bit and still stand. The rest of Europe does not have that problem either because they do not have a band of idiots in banks and building societies which have declared reinforced concrete an "item preventing the issuing of a mortgage". Their building code specifies and mandates that the inner construction has reinforced concrete pillars in key places. So their buildings may get a few fractures in the outer wall here and there. The wall is not structural (the pillars are) and, you slap a few trhowels of fresh mortar and plaster on it, it still stands, move along. And most importantly - they have proper foundations - the foundation are poured as a solid plate so the whole building moves instead of being put only under the walls (and crack).
So in the long term if UK is to frak (or mine again) it needs the banking and building societies to understand the difference between a fully encased concrete pillar which is inside the house (and will not rust) and badly done "pre-baked" happy-soc concrete panels reinforced with easily rusting high carbon steel (which did rust all over the UK). These are not the same things. The builders will also need to learn a practice which European builders are well familiar with - retrofitting structural columns into an existing building. The same style as in the UK was quite common around south-eastern europe in the 50-es and outfitting it with columns before overbuilding additional floors on top is by now a standard well developed procedure. It is not that expensive either. Granted - it never gives the same stability as a proper new building but should be enough all the way to 4-5 local quake.
Re: A sudden outbreak of common sense?
I work for one of the big six energy companies, and we actually invested several hundred million in developing our nuclear options.
What happened was that we found unsurprisingly that nuclear power plants cost five times or more as much as a similar output CCGT, additionally have far more construction risk, plus the long tail of decommissoning costs. The government tried to, but couldn't rig the electricity market sufficiently to come up with the vast subsidies to pay for nuclear, so we, along with most other players pulled out. It already smells like the proposed new Hinkley Point reactor will be deferred (this was the most advanced scheme). And because of botched government intervention to thrust money at crap renewables there's no headroom or cash left to pay for nukes.
By way of comparison, it would cost around about £6b for a 1.5MW reactor. The government have ensured that some £20bn has already been invested in wind, for fuck all benefit, with probably a similar amount to follow in the next seven years. If DECC weren't such arseholes, that £40bn could have bought seven nuke plants, and added almost 11 GW of reliable capacity to the generation fleet (current peak capacity for reference, is about 80 GW). As noted, that would have been vastly more expensive than gas CCGT, but at least we'd have somthing to show for it. Instead all we will have to show is a lot of spoiled landscapes, and now we need to build the gas plant anyway.
Not much you can do about this now, other than to campaign for every member of staff at DECC (and every DECC pensioner) to be hurled into the fuel shute of a large coal fired power station.