Embracing shale gas will do us all 
a power of good

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FOR something that has yet to happen in Britain, there has been a lot of discussion about production of natural gas from shale in recent months. Yet rhetoric has obscured a proper understanding of the process. The reality is that natural gas from shale brings several important benefits and a number of issues that need to be carefully considered.

The first benefit is in helping to meet Britain’s energy needs. More than four out of five of us heat our homes with gas, and gas will continue to be the main heating source even as renewables become more important for electricity generation. But without production of natural gas from shale, National Grid’s latest scenarios suggest that up to 90 per cent of our gas will be imported in 20 years’ time. 

According to the Institute of Directors, shale gas could provide around a third of the country’s gas needs by 2030. 

Second, production of shale gas will create employment and benefit manufacturing. A recent report found that a British shale gas industry could spend more than £30bn over the next two decades on items such as steel, cement, rigs, hydraulic fracturing equipment, water treatment and environmental monitoring services. It concluded that this activity could support over 60,000 jobs, including in the supply chain and in service industries such as hospitality and retail. By contrast, imported gas supports very few jobs in the UK.

It’s not just firms in the supply chain who are likely to benefit. Natural gas liquids are important feedstocks for the petrochemical industry. Ethane, for example, is used to make ethylene, which is found in a wide range of products, including food packaging, tyres, detergents and adhesives. 

Third, shale gas can help to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. When used to generate electricity, gas emits around half the CO2 of coal, with almost none of the air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide and particulates. Gas can also be used to replace diesel in buses and trucks, improving air quality in cities. Reading in Berkshire, for example, now has a fleet of compressed natural gas buses. 

Shale gas production has, however, led to concerns about water and air pollution, earth tremors and local development, and these concerns need to be addressed seriously by the industry. 

First, contamination of groundwater and surface water can be avoided by ensuring that hydraulic fracturing takes place far below aquifers, by installing multiple layers of steel and cement around the well to protect against leaks, and by sealing the site to guard against any accidental spills. Only chemicals defined as non-hazardous by the Environment Agency are allowed in fracturing fluids, and these must be disclosed publicly. Careful handling and treatment of waste water, which does contain small amounts of naturally occurring radioactive material, is essential.

Recent studies in the UK by a number of eminent institutions and individuals including the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, Public Health England, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Managers and the eminent scientists Professor David Mackay and Dr Tim Stone, among others, have all concluded that the risks are manageable in a properly regulated industry.

Second, it is important to minimise emissions of methane and other contaminants from site operations. Simple measures like sealing all valves properly can reduce up to 90 per cent of fugitive emissions. Dust, which can be found on any building site, also needs to be controlled. 

Third, earth tremors from shale operations are smaller than those from coal mining, and are generally too small to be felt at the surface. Companies now carry out 3D seismic monitoring before drilling operations, which identifies the location of small fault lines that can then be avoided. During hydraulic fracturing, a traffic light monitoring system will pause or stop operations if seismic events above 0.5 are identified. 

One of the biggest concerns is about the local development impacts. Shale gas pads do bring trucks, lighting and noise from drilling operations, and as much as companies can minimise their impact, there will always be a certain level of disruption. But once drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations are complete, the equipment is taken away, the truck traffic ceases, and the site will be hardly noticeable. 

Each shale site is likely to be around five acres in size and, even at peak production of shale gas, there may be 100 or so of these around the country. There will need to be connecting pipelines to transport the gas to a compressor station and from there to the gas grid – but these are small distances when compared with the over 150,000 miles of pipelines we already have in the UK to provide gas to homes and businesses. 

Shale gas is not the only solution to our energy needs. It should be seen as part of a cleaner energy mix with less coal, more renewables and nuclear, and a big effort to improve the efficiency with which we use energy. Like any source of energy, it comes with issues that need to be worked through. But it could, and should, play an important role. 

Corin Taylor is a senior adviser at UKOOG, the trade association for the onshore oil and gas industry (www.ukoog.org.uk).