With recent events in Ukraine, people around the world have turned their attention to alternative energy supplies. Those in the UK will likely remember the closure of the UK’s land-based fracking sites in Surrey and Sussex, and the subsequent moratorium imposed by the government on fracking that came as a result of many protests and local dissent.
Yet we’ve actually been fracking in the UK for the past 50 years, with no major incidents reported. Where? In the North Sea, where fracking has long been a successful method for hydraulic extraction of oil and gas.
A brief history of shale gas
Natural gas that was formed in the carboniferous era (around 359 to 299 million years ago) is trapped in solid rock, thousands of feet below the surface of the earth. These gas-rich rock deposits are known as shale gas. Despite knowing of their existence for many years, the best way to safely mine these deposits has always been a challenge.
A group of maverick engineers and geologists in the USA were the ones to finally find a solution. In a process that took considerable trial, error and the loss of many personal fortunes, finally, through the evolution of many drilling techniques, over 20 years, they finally identified a workable solution.
This group of mavericks applied sheer will and determination to develop the techniques required to release the gas, inventing and then perfecting horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking techniques, thousands of metres beneath the earth’s surface.
It was made all the more challenging because no one gas pocket is the same – each has variable flow rates and is located in different types of rock formation. As a result, many differing solutions were needed for a successful extraction.
Solving the challenge of variable flow rates has been the major challenge in making shale gas a commercially viable solution to solving the UK’s own natural gas challenges.
Fracking in Europe
In the UK, we have dabbled with hydraulic fracking in horizontal wells since 2011, yet environmental pressure groups and stringent government limits made it impossible to accurately ascertain if gas from shale truly was viable.
In the fracking testing that ended in 2019, Cuadrilla, the company leading the experiment, gave up without proving if flow rates could be achieved, after local tremors that measured 2.7 on the Richter scale. The tremors were considered to be too high for the local community to tolerate.
Similar gas-rich rock formations in Poland have similarly failed to produce wells that will flow at commercially viable rates – Poland’s initial ambition was even greater than the UK’s – it’s dream was to free itself from its dependence on Russian gas and oil, but the country’s abandoned wells tell a familiar story – their hopes have faded as fast as they rose when, following five years of effort, the exploration project admitted defeat and was ended in 2015.
Why fracking is not the solution to our energy challenges
While we’ve seen a glut of headlines about the possibility of reviving fracking in the UK as a result of the war in Ukraine, the reality is that to make fracking a viable solution would take years – potentially decades – to succeed. Even if the UK is able to identify enough sites where shale gas is located, the process of successfully extracting that gas and ensuring a flow rate that makes the project financially feasible is not a simple challenge, or one that can be resolved any time soon.
So what’s the answer? The first step is taking a closer look at ways to be more energy efficient. Europe’s poorer classes have some of the leakiest, least energy efficient homes on the planet. Ensuring better insulation can help reduce the impact of energy price increases and limit the dependency on fossil fuels when done on a national level.
For those who can afford it, ground source heat pumps are a good alternative to using fossil fuels, and government subsidies could help to accelerate this move and make it more accessible for many. Building new homes with solar panels is another way that we, as a country, can become less reliant on dictator states for our fossil fuels, and help the UK on its journey towards net zero while easing the population’s exposure to the skyrocketing oil and gas prices that we are currently experiencing.