The battle to win hearts and minds in the shale gas debate

Yorkshire is poised to benefit from the shale gas revolution, says Tom Pickering. He met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

Tom Pickering
Tom Pickering

TOM Pickering is a devoted Munro-bagger, a pastime that goes hand in hand with a love of the outdoors, and beautiful landscapes.

The Munros, as any dedicated hillwalker will tell you, are mountains in Scotland above 3,000 feet, and they attract “baggers” who prize their serenity. When he’s not braving the fickle Scottish weather, Mr Pickering is out camping. game fishing and shooting in his spare time.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

He’s not the sort of person who would want to spoil a perfect view. This makes him the perfect advocate for Ineos Shale, a company that has secured licences for petroleum exploration in parts of the North York Moors National Park.

The licences cover some of the national park, although it was decided by Parliament that drilling would not be allowed inside the national park itself. Jim Ratcliffe, the Ineos chairman, predicted that we were about to witness the start of a shale gas revolution that will transform manufacturing in the UK.

Mr Ratcliffe, who was educated at Beverley Grammar School, said that Ineos had the skills to safely extract the gas, and he has promised to talk to local communities about the company’s plans and share the rewards with them. In 2014, Ineos, a Swiss-based chemicals giant, announced plans to invest £640m in shale gas exploration and appraisal in a move which could make it the biggest player in the industry in the UK.

Not everyone has welcomed Ineos’s arrival in Yorkshire. Russell Scott, of Frack Free North Yorkshire, claimed that Yorkshire would soon become one huge gas field, “with grave consequences for our local industries, environment, wildlife, health and peaceful way of life”. Mr Pickering is an energy industry veteran who wants to use calm analysis, and community consultation, to allay these fears. He’s been at the sharp end of the sector, having worked on North Sea oil rigs, before working as an independent energy consultant. He is keen to win hearts and minds.

He said: “Our consultation and engagement with the community starts now, not in the future at the point of frack... A natural gas development will not only create jobs, but it will sustain existing local industry, which relies on the... provision of power, and of ethane to make products.

“You will see us getting out and explaining the science, and the process by which this is appraised. There will be a very cautious, and very thoughtful, management of that process.

“We will also take time to listen to the concerns that people have locally, about what they have read and the local impacts, and really start to build that relationship with local communities.”

Mr Pickering is the face of Ineos’s shale campaign, and is operational director of the Ineos UK-wide shale business.

Before INEOS, he started his own business related to coal bed methane. He believes shale gas is vital for Yorkshire’s economy and this is a once in a generation opportunity for the UK to take the European lead in this area. He also believes that onshore shale gas exploration could pick up the slack, in both jobs and investment, for UK energy provision.

The case presented by Ineos runs something like this: Shale gas is natural gas that is found trapped within shale formations. It is cheaper than other energy sources and is driving a manufacturing boom in the US, according to Ineos. In 2000, shale gas provided only one per cent of US natural gas production.

In 2010 it was more than 20 per cent and its supporters predict that, by 2035, 46 per cent of the US’s natural gas supply will come from shale gas. Ineos said it has brought in the most experienced US shale experts, who have safely drilled and fracked thousands of shale wells.

Mr Pickering said: “This sustains manufacturing jobs. What we want to achieve as a business is securing energy; ideally energy that’s beneath our feet.

“(That’s) energy that contributes to wealth creation in the nation rather than importing (energy). We think that is something that is achievable.

“As an industry, we have demonstrated that we are safe, and we have won respect with communities,’’ Mr Pickering said. “We also think we have a role to play in increasing employment in these areas, through skilled and technical jobs offering long-term employment.”

In North Yorkshire, the initial work will be done on a desk top. Mr Pickering and his team will analyse the historical records from mining operations, and other geological data, before any steps are taken to carry out drilling. He said Ineos was gathering and explaining the data to the regulators and stakeholders and “advancing knowledge in a cautious, scientific way”.

“Coupled with that is the community element of this,’’ he said. “We’re going to work very hard to explain ourselves and explain that science.” If the analysis shows that the scheme is viable, Ineos could start drilling in multiple sites. However, as Mr Pickering is at pains to point out, this doesn’t mean lots of large rigs will suddenly appear in parts of North Yorkshire.

He added: “The reality is that these will be reduced down to something the size of a tennis court with a small pipe like a fire hydrant. The actual operations of drilling are three months for a well, and a week for fracking.”

Mr Pickering said that Ineos can conduct its operations without ruining the view or disrupting life nearby.

The UK has an “extremely tight and competent” regulatory environment, which means that shale gas extraction must be carried out safely, Mr Pickering said.

He added: “People do not have anything to worry about at a local level. We can demonstrate clearly how this will be managed, as we have managed other businesses for many years, safely and properly.”

Title: Operational director of Ineos’s UK-wide shale business. The company has secured licences for petroleum exploration in North Yorkshire.

Date of birth: 1979

First job: McDonald’s, in Stirling, Scotland

Education: Dollar Academy and Aberdeen University

Last book read: The Language of God, by Francis S Collins

Favourite film: Ring of Bright Of Water

Favourite holiday destination: Gairloch, in Wester Ross, in Scotland

What is the thing you are most proud of: Watching my two sons growing up.