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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My time as an old woman with a £4,000 prosthetic face, working for the Daily Mail

On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was, for a time, a Daily Mail features writer. My job was to sanctify and incite the prejudices of its editorial staff and readers – ideally while wearing fancy dress, because that is more palatable and moronic.

I have been, at various times and for money, a Saxon peasant, a Restoration hussy, the back half of a cow, a devout Muslim, an ice dancer and a man. It quite often went wrong.

I was, for instance, asked to dress up as an old woman, in order to find out what it was like to be an old woman. Any newspaper that was not institutionally insane would have simply asked an old woman what it was like to be an old woman but, since the Mail thinks in fantastical stereotypes, that would never happen. The results would be too shocking.

I was given a £4,000 prosthetic face. I went to the East End because that, according to the Daily Mail, is where poor people live. I was supposed to get mugged, so I walked around with £50 notes falling out of my pockets. A boy came up to me, handed me the £50 note I had dropped and said: “You want to watch your money. You’ll get mugged.”

Editorial was disappointed. Perhaps I should try again in Kensington? This was considered unsuitable (nice people live in Kensington), so I went to Tramp nightclub.

“My grandson comes here,” I said to the woman on the door, in my old woman’s voice. “What tabloid newspaper or TV reality show are you from?” she asked. (She was obviously a Daily Mail reader.) On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was asked to wear a burqa for a week. A black burqa was no good for the photographs – the Mail hates black clothing, even to illustrate a story about black clothing – so I hired a golden one from Angels, the costumiers. I later saw a photograph of myself in that burqa, illustrating an actual news story in the Evening Standard.

In the US, a woman passed herself off as a man, convincingly, for a year. I was asked to do the same, although the budget would not run to a year. Even so, the idea that the Daily Mail would pay a female journalist to pretend to be a man permanently is not, if you know the paper, that weird.

I went to the BBC costume department and was given a fat suit and a wig. I was a very ugly man. As I left the BBC – my instructions were, among other things, to chat up women – a woman said to me, “You’re not a man, you’re a lesbian.” I hid in a pub and engaged in a telephone stand-off with editorial. I explained that I did not want to leave the pub because I didn’t look like a man at all but a very creepy woman, which is exactly what I was.

Suzanne Moore is away

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State