Shale gas in the UK: it’s not all about the science

The gas is there, but companies in the UK need more support to get it.

Shale gas exploitation has recently been given the go-ahead in the UK. With all the excitement, claim and counter claim, it would be easy to forget that to date not a single molecule of methane from shale gas has been produced and sold. We have drilled one shale gas well. That’s an 8½ inch borehole in Lancashire, a little like pushing a pin through the ceiling of your living room and looking through the hole. It does not tell you much about what’s in there. So will this new source of gas make a difference?

Let’s start with some numbers. Present UK annual production of natural gas is around 1.5 TCF (trillion cubic feet), but each year we use about 3.3 TCF. In the USA in the last 10 years, approximately 20,000 shale gas wells have been drilled and they now have an annual shale gas production of 3-4 TCF per year. If we use the USA as an analogy, the UK would need to drill thousands of wells to prove the reserves exist and make up just a part of the annual 1.8 TCF short-fall. Unlike wind energy, where there has been a move to develop it offshore, this is ecomomically unviable for shale gas because the rate of flow of gas for each well (i.e. revenue) is low relative to gas from other types of rock . So we cannot get away from it - researching the risks and an open and honest debate about them is an essential element in gaining the social acceptance of the technology that will be required.

Durham University have been working on this. Firstly, despite what we are often told, to date in the USA there is not one proven case of contamination of drinking water due to fracking after hundreds of thousands of fracking operations. But the contamination question led us to establish a guideline for a safe vertical separation distance of 600m between the depth of the fracking and shallower water supplies. If adopted, contamination of water supplies would be extremely unlikely.

We’re working on other issues. For instance the water used for fracking flows back to the surface in a controlled way after the operation is over. This water is contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive material, otherwise known as NORM. Even with the hundreds to thousands of wells that would be required to make an impact in the UK, the amount of radionucleides such as radium 226, is going to be a fraction of that produced by the medical sector, universities and existing oil and gas production. It would need to be cleaned and any residue safely disposed of. The technology exists – so this is not a show-stopper.

USA shale gas production took off in the last 10 years because the country has thousands of onshore drilling rigs available to carry out the drilling and helpful landowners who in some cases own the gas under their land. Both are not the case in the UK. Even if the social acceptance is forthcoming, it will take years for the industry to gear-up to drill enough wells to make an impact on the production-consumption gap. The science behind extraction of the gas reserves may in the end be secondary to issues of public trust in oil and gas companies, regulators and local and national government. The gas is there, but companies in the UK need what was recently coined a "social licence to operate". Without this the wells will not be drilled and shale gas will only ever make a tiny contribution to our economy and energy security.

Richard Davies is director of Durham Energy Institute, one of Durham University’s eight Research Institutes

But does it really? Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Davies is Director of Durham Energy Institute.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.