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British Geological Survey warns on the dangers of confusing shale gas resources with reserves

  • 27 Jun 2013, 16:30
  • Robin Webster

The north of England has a shale gas resource of 1,300 trillion cubic feet (tcf), according to a long-awaited analysis by the British Geological Survey (BGS). But BGS says it may not be possible to get any more shale gas out of the ground than it assumed in an estimate two years ago.  

The assessment was released today in a Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) report, on the day energy minister Michael Fallon hailed as "the day that Britain gets serious about shale". Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said the estimate "confirms the huge potential that shale gas has for the UK".

But where is all this gas, how does it compare to other countries, and how much will it be possible to use? 

Where is it? 

The BGS estimate covers the Bowland shale found in the north of England, in Lancashire and east of the Pennines: 

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 At 14.04.39

The shale rock in this area is found at two different depths. The green represents the distribution of the upper layer of rock, the orange the lower layer and the purple the area where both are found - it the North York moors for example. 

How big is it? 

According to DECC, the UK consumes about 3 tcf of gas a year - so a figure of 1300 tcf is clearly pretty significant. To provide some comparison, figures calculated from the US Energy Information Administration suggest that France has a shale gas resource of 2335 tcf. 

At today's press conference, BGS's Professor Mike Stephenson was at pains  to emphasise the new number refers to the shale gas resource - the total amount of gas that is there - rather than the amount of gas it might be possible to get out, known as reserves or recoverable resource.

BGS highlighted a number of different factors affecting the difference between resource and reserves:

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 At 15.25.30

The difference between the two figures is determined by a wide variety of factors - including environmental constraints, government regulation, infrastructure and political attitudes towards the technology as well as the technical difficulties of actually getting the shale gas out of the ground. 

Converting resources to reserves?

Stephenson was reluctant to be drawn on what BGS's new figure for the shale gas resource in the north of England might mean for the country's ability to extract shale gas - arguing that it is very difficult to make a reasoned assumption when such a lot of issues affect the calculation and before  test wells have been drilled in the UK. 

The US-based Energy Information Administration recently estimated that it might be technically possible to extract about four per cent of the UK's shale gas resource. But the EIA's assessment didn't take economic, social or political factors into accont. 

In 2011, BGS estimated that the north of England might yield 4.7tcf of the gas - a figure that's about 250 times smaller than today's estimate. Stephenson described the figure today as "back of a fag packet" - but also told Carbon Brief it's "not unreasonable" to conclude that it could be right. 

A lot of shale gas

Michael Fallon said today that it would be "irresponsible" for the country to ignore the opportunity shale gas represents - and that the new fuel has the potential to generate tax revenues and community benefits as well as energy security. 

It's clear that the fuel will form a part of the UK's energy mix, and that the country could access to quite a significant resource. Despite the release of today's figure, exactly how big that will be remains something of an unknown quantity.

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