Shale Gas and Fracking

Last week I attended the Shale UK event for Infrastructure Intelligence. This particular conference was run by The Geological Society and as such it had an underlying technical and professional tone that ensured the event was all about the facts of the matter, and not the politics or even the philosophy. The geologists, engineers and academics were not lecturing on what the UK should do with regard to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, they were discussing the technical issues in an impartial way and that is something that the entire debate really needs.

Cuadrilla revealed results from its first hydraulically fracked well in Lancashire

Several important issues became apparent as the conference rolled on starting with the fact that despite having over 100 years of oil and gas expertise and some of the best minds in the world examining the UK shale beds, there is a lot that we do not know. Without any test data from exploration it is not possible to calculate the cost of recovery and therefore the potential volume of the reserve. Early findings from the only hydraulically fracked well in the UK so far, Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well in Lancashire were revealed at the conference with senior geoscientist Huw Clarke explaining that the findings showed high levels of free gas, (a desirable quality for energy firms), and a larger resource than initially forecast. However this cannot yet be translated into a reserve value.

Interestingly the conference revealed that geologists are not concerned about seismic risks from hydraulic fracturing. Professor Peter Styles of Keele University says that in reality only three earthquakes have been induced by hydraulic fracturing despite over 35,000 wells having been drilled in the US alone and that the UK could have had its “Black Swan” event early with the Blackpool tremors that registered 2.3 and 1.5 in magnitude. “Hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented does not pose a high risk for inducing felt  seismic  events,” he says.

In terms of pollution prevention well integrity is crucial said several presenters. Well construction experts from Moorhouse Drilling & Completions and Petroleum Safety Services Ltd explained the key design criteria and demonstrated how the sequential construction of the well creates several barriers between the borehole and the external environment – when done properly. Ensuring that it is done properly will be the Health & Safety Executive and the Environment Agency along with an independent well inspector. This inspector role has been the subject of debate with energy companies paying experts and thereby challenging the “independent” position. More guidance is expected on this subject.

Other unknowns include the levels of naturally occurring radiation that will be present in the fracturing water once it has done its job, and how this will be dealt with if it is above permissible limits. Long term re-injection has higher seismic risk than fracking itself said experts; and whether the current regulatory set up is adequate for production phase with the Environment Agency confirming that this is “under review”

A more detailed analysis will appear in a forthcoming issue of Infrastructure Intelligence.

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