How much shale gas has the UK got?
- 04 Dec 2012, 13:00
- Robin Webster
How much shale gas lies under the surface of the UK - and how
much will be extracted over the next two decades? Over the weekend
the Independent claimed that more than 60 per cent of the UK
countryside could be exploited for shale gas - a statement the
Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) dismissed as
"nonsense". So what does the data show?
The question is particularly relevant this week as the
chancellor George Osborne is due to announce the government's
gas generation strategy as part of this Thursday's autumn budget
statement. And according to the Financial Times, he will
greater expansion of gas fired power stations than previously
expected. The media are also reporting that Osborne will create a
new office for shale gas to "
co-ordinate and speed up production" - as well as a new
"generous" tax regime to stimulate investment.
Exploiting 64 per cent of Britain?
Parts of the media have
frequently discussed how much shale gas the UK will be able to
exploit - and how quickly - and they haven't been shy of making
estimates. On Saturday the front page of the Independent added
another number to the mix,
"More than 60 per cent of the British
countryside could be exploited for shale gas, government documents
But in response, DECC says:
"It is too early to assess the potential
for shale gas but the suggestion more than 60 per cent of the UK
countryside could be exploited is nonsense."
So who's right?
The 64 per cent claim comes from
analysis by environmental group Greenpeace, using a
report on the shale gas resources in the UK, published by DECC
in 2011. Figure 2 of the report looks like this:
The pink area shows the area that may be offered to companies
for exploitation as part of the
14th onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round. This is the latest in
a series of competitions where the government invites companies to
apply for licences. Greenpeace calculated the figure of 64 per
cent by working out what proportion of England - not Britain, as
the Independent claims - the pink area covers.
A spokesperson from DECC told us that the map merely "reflected
the geological map of the UK that could have the potential for
shale gas", and there is a "large difference [in] what could be
commercially and technically recovered". In other words, the map
doesn't tell us much about how much shale gas the UK has got,
although it does tell us where it might end up being extracted
Greenpeace's EnergyDesk says:
"The data doesn't suggest that 64% or
even a fraction of that area will actually be exploited for
How much shale gas - and how quickly? Some
has commissioned the British Geological Survey (BGS) to estimate
the UK's onshore shale gas reserves, a figure DECC says will be
released next year. The Independent is right on one point - rumour
has it BGS's new estimate will be considerably higher
than previous figures suggest.
It's worth pointing out, however, that high estimated shale gas
reserves don't necessarily mean it will be technically possible -
viable - to extract all of it. The Economist has suggested, for
example, that the UK's most prominent shale gas company, Cuadrilla,
may only be able to recover 10 to 20 per cent of the 200 trillion
cubic feet UK shale gas find it announced last
opinion also seems to indicate that prospects for significant
European shale gas production over the next decade are limited. And
Ed Davey seems similarly circumspect about shale gas in the UK. He
told the Guardian recently:
"I hope we will be able to produce a
lot, but in terms of big production of shale gas it is going to
take years. [...] Sometimes you listen to some of the commentators
and they seem to think you can just turn shale gas on."
If, as some newspapers are reporting, Osborne announces this
week that the UK will need
30 new new gas-fired power stations by 2030, or even that half
of our power could come from gas by 2030, then this is a point
worth bearing in mind. Shale gas produced elsewhere in the world
may drive down international
gas prices, but relying on the UK unconventional gas industry
to bring down domestic wholesale prices may be a risky bet.