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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle