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Tory power grab for Celtic shale

Image: Ric Lander

Hidden in amongst the Tory ‘power grab’ that is the EU Withdrawal Bill is a clause that allows English ministers to take full control over fracking licenses and decisions in Scotland and Wales.  The change is just one of a raft of clauses that seek to neuter the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments’ ability to make decisions in areas that have long been accepted to be devolved.

The fracking clause has particular resonance because both devolved administrations (which, unlike the Tories and their friends in the City of London, stand to make few financial gains from fracking) have been considerably less enthusiastic about fracking than their English counterparts.  Both Scotland and Wales have imposed a moratorium – which falls short of a complete ban – on fracking; something that is supported by the majority of their respective electorates.  If English ministers are free to override these democratic decisions in the same way that they have overridden decisions made by English councils, then the whole basis of devolved administration in the UK is called into question.

There is, however, another reason why ministers should be cautious about overturning the Celtic moratorium… one that hits the average Tory where it hurts the most.  A recent paper by John Richard Underhill, Chief Scientist & Professor of Exploration Geoscience at Heriot-Watt University has called into question the viability of UK shale gas in its entirety:

“[Proponents and opponents of fracking] tacitly assume that fracking would work if exploration drilling went ahead. They pay little attention to whether the country’s geology is suitable for shale oil and gas production. The implication is that because fracking works in the US, it must also work here. In fact, the UK’s geological history suggests this is probably wrong.”

The issue raised by Underhill is that the ‘cooking’ process in which organic matter was turned to oil and gas as a consequence of pressure and heat over millions of years may simply not have happened for UK shale deposits, which are often too shallow for oil and gas to have formed.  Moreover, the UK’s shifting geology will have allowed a large amount of what gas there was to have escaped into the atmosphere long before humans arrived:

“At the very least, there is a need to factor this considerable and fundamental geological uncertainty into the economic equation. It would be extremely unwise to rely on shale gas to ride to the rescue of the UK’s gas needs only to discover it is 55m years too late.”

These issues are compounded in Scotland and Wales by the complex geological structuring.  Shale in the USA’s Permian Basin exists in neat wide bands like a layer cake.  Once drillers reach the right depth they can drill out horizontally to recover large volumes of oil and gas.  The UK is very different:

“UK basins said to hold large quantities of shale gas, like those containing the Carboniferous Bowland Shale in Lancashire and West Lothian Oil Shale in Scotland… went through an additional previous episode of deformation about 290m years ago. This has compounded their structural complexity.”

As the South Wales mining industry found to its cost as long ago as the nineteenth century, the large number of faults in the area can cause coal seams to simply disappear within a few metres.  One minute the miners would be hacking at a coal face, the next a solid slab of rock.  Then they had to try to figure out whether the coal seam continued above or below them.  The same kind of problem will confront anyone trying to send a remote controlled drill laterally along a shale deposit… except, of course that without eyes on the ground, they will not be able to figure out which way the shale seam went.

This problem is likely to plague shale drillers across the UK, but will be a particular issue in Scotland and Wales.  As Professor Roy Thompson from the department of GeoSciences, at Edinburgh University points out:

“The structural geology of the Central Belt is not straightforward.  The Carboniferous strata lie in a series of small sub-basins and can be subject to remarkably abrupt and extensive lateral change. In addition faults are encountered every ½ mile or so…  Such profound discontinuities must inevitably create difficulties during extended-reach fracking and lead to well underperformance.”

Thompson raises the same doubts as Underhill as to how much recoverable shale gas may be present beneath the British Isles.  But his calculations for Scotland are clear:

“All in all Scottish shales may well have a success factor of zero.”

The obvious conclusion for anyone who had intended investing in UK shale gas ought to be to avoid it like the plague.  But insofar as there will still be investors who are prepared to lose their life savings, together with Tory politicians who are always happy to gamble with other people’s money, Thompson has this helpful piece of advice:

“In comparison to Scotland, the North of England has a gas resource estimated at 1300 tcf. Its simpler geology with deeper, thicker shales corresponds reasonably well with superior US provinces. Consequently if fracking is not commercially viable in the North of England it certainly won’t be in Scotland.”

The message to English Tories is straightforward enough – wait and see if the shale deposits that you are currently drilling in Lancashire and Yorkshire can yield profitable shale gas before you rush to turn the whole of the UK into a patchwork of drill pads.

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