These days, leading British politicians burdened with power have a tendency to show outwardly that they are, if little else, earnest. When busy with economic and industrial policy they wear tailored day-glo hi-viz suits and shiny new hard hats. During the great 2015 floods of Northern England, their garb was off the peg North Face gear and green wellington boots. And, of course, for social policy a hoodie is de rigueur. Rosy-cheeked Prime Minister David Cameron has been extremely earnest about fracking for shale gas for several years, and in the petroleum industry the appropriate signal of a leading politician’s enthusiasm is to wear a rigger’s blue jumpsuit; ‘We’re going all out for shale’ Cameron has said. Given the explosive success of shale-gas exploitation in North America over the last decade that’s not very surprising, but do not expect to see him looking earnestly at an exploration rig again any time soon.
Cameron’s excitement began when in 2011 the Advanced Resources Institute (ARI) in Washington DC released the results of its consultancy for the US Department of Energy on global shale-gas prospects. The star prospect in Europe was Poland, well endowed with subsurface shales, which according to ARI, had more than 5 trillion cubic metres of technically recoverable reserves, enough to satisfy Polish consumption for more than 300 years. In 2013, ARI suggested 17 trillion m3 beneath Britain, albeit only 0.7 trillion that was amenable to fracking (about a decade’s worth of British gas consumption). But still the hype was maintained. An article in the 3 March 2016 issue of Nature (Inman, M. 2016. Can fracking power Europe. Nature, v. 531, p. 22-24) tempers enthusiasm a great deal more.
The Polish Geological Institute revised the country’s reserves down to a tenth of ARI’s estimate. After an initial frenzy of interest following the ARI report, when exploration licences covered a third of Poland, during 2013 and 2014 major companies relinquished licences for fracking en masse. Their exploratory activities had been disappointing because of the depth of burial (2-5 km compared with 1-2 km in the US) and unfavourably high clay content and strength of the target shales. The less thrilling ARI prospects for Britain did not excite major petroleum players at all, what interest there is being from ‘juniors’ such as Cuadrilla. The British Geological Survey, which has huge archives of geological information, both surface and subsurface, has assessed the three main British shale-gas ‘plays’ and comes up with a reserve figure of between 24 and 68 trillion m3. But that high figure is based on the situation in mid-west North American shale-gas fields, where the geology is a great deal simpler than here. In Britain, orogenies at the end of the Carboniferous and the outermost ripples of that which formed the Alps in late Mesozoic and Palaeogene times created far more deformation than beneath the central plains of North America. Widespread faults, even though few in Britain have large displacements, pose two sets of problems. As the minor earthquakes set off by fracking in the tectonically simple Fylde area of western Lancashire indicate, pumping fluids into faulted rock can release pent-up elastic strain. But such leakage into faults and smaller fractures may also cause the injection pressure to fall, making the fracking process less efficient.
Inman reports that fracking is now moribund throughout Europe, partly because of the disappointing results and also because environmental concerns for densely populated regions have spurred widespread moratoria, including those in three of Britain’s four nations; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The only current European fracking activity is in England, conducted by a handful of junior companies. A stumbling block in England actually lies with the quality of subsurface data for what has been described at the most close examined geology in the world. Since the early 1980s there has been a succession of onshore licensing rounds for oil and conventional gas, the 14th of which is still active. The early ones were accompanied by a great deal of seismic reflection surveying, mainly using the truck mounted ‘Vibroseis’ method where the ground is mechanically thumped rather than subject to explosive shot firing that is favoured in sparsely populated areas. According to BGS, the guardians of the onshore seismic exploration repository, compared with the onshore seismic data available in North America that for Britain is ‘sparse, and fairly poor’.