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    UK Shale Gas – "Cart Before Horse” Dilemma



If UK is to put the horse before the cart anytime soon on its responsible development of shale gas, it will require a move from talking to effective action.

by: Mansoor - Sergio

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Natural Gas & LNG News, News By Country, United Kingdom, Shale Gas , , Top Stories

UK Shale Gas – "Cart Before Horse” Dilemma

At The Future of Shale Gas in the UK panel debate hosted at the Imperial College London, Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, claimed that “the reality is we will be using gas beyond 2030, the question is where will we get it from.” He explained, “The only case I have seen [suggesting a stop in the use of gas] relies on a 60% reduction in demand, without an explanation of how we will get there.” With consumption, both domestic and industrial, increasing, Mr Egan noted that the UK has a choice to make - either continuing to import more gas or “responsibly develop” the indigenous gas present in the UK.   

On the challenges with increasing reliance on imports, Mr Egan stated, “most of that [imported gas] at the moment is coming from Holland and Norway and increasingly further afield in liquefied form from Qatar and North Africa.” He continued by saying, “as Holland and Norway themselves move into decline, the requirements to bring from further afield will increase and ironically people are now talking about importing shale gas from US into UK.” He mentioned that if the UK ends up in such a situation rather than developing its own resources - "we will be insane in our mind. From an economic point of view and an emissions point of view. “ 

This perspective supported that of fellow panellist Geoff Maitland, Professor of Energy Engineering at Imperial. Professor Maitland suggested gas would be a “major part of our energy future.” He highlighted its importance from a security of supply and climate security perspective by saying more gas is needed to replace existing gas but also to replace coal, for which “we need to use whatever gas supplies we have indigenously,” shale gas being the prime option. 

Professor Maitland, whilst advocating the bright future for shale gas as a clean energy source relative to other fossil fuels, did acknowledge that “our target should be to move towards carbonless fuels and energy with as near zero emissions as quickly as possible, where our long term solution there will be renewables…[but] we are many decades away from being able to achieve that destination.” Concluding, “for at least the next 50 years we will need to continue to use fossil fuels if economies are going to grow and if quality of life aspirations across the world are going to be achieved.”  

As the panellists continued to introduce themselves, giving their five minutes elevator pitch, the rationale for shale gas in the UK was reinforced. However, this debate has been one of many relating to UK’s efforts for developing this unconventional hydrocarbon resource in recent months, months are quickly becoming years, with still little action.


Dr. Nick Riley, Director of Carboniferous Ltd., highlighted that “unless we actually explore, we won’t know what we are doing.” Dr. Riley, formerly the Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society, alluded to the many arguments existing in the public domain from a range of actors, suggesting that these are “really cart before horse” arguments, adding that “we haven’t done a frack [for shale gas] in this country since 2011.”  

Dr. Riley’s call for action, followed the Cuadrilla CEO’s frustration that “until you drill a well and actually measure it, it is just talk. We are very good at talk and not too good at action.” The “we” implicitly targeting the UK Government to make its move in what seems to be a game of slow political chess being played, has further entrenched the shale gas developments into a highly politicised agenda item. An issue amplified by ineffective public engagement at the inception of shale gas developments, which led to the halt of onshore fracking.  

The Q&A session that followed had a strong focus on public engagement. This was typified by Professor Maitland’s comment early on that these “issues are complex and require good balanced debates, about the technology, economics and the regulation and the way this is worked out through communities and society.” 

The panel made an effort to resolve issues the audience had and correct certain misconceptions. This included enlightening the audience on UK government’s intended regulations on well-integrity and chemicals use during the fracking process; resolving that the public’s perception of negative impact on domestic property valuations, suggesting these were not based actual data and were out of sync with positive valuations of properties near other oil & gas sites in the UK.  

Water usage was also discussed with a fear that shale gas development will compromise availability of water for domestic use. Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla, which buys water from United Utilities, stated that “if there wasn’t sufficient water we would get cut off” demonstrating the priority of utilities to meet domestic demand ahead of industrial demand.

Jane Burston, Head of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, also on the panel, bought up issues surrounding the carbon footprint of shale gas. She highlighted that natural gas as a whole “is cleaner in combustion than coal and oil,” but consideration of the carbon footprint for water treatment, transport and leaks & venting was also vital. Ms. Burston claimed that there is a “large potential to mitigate leaks, more than 90%” if effective mechanisms termed “green completion” are followed, some of which are outlined by the Environment Agency.  

The event, which had been themed as a debate had emerged to be more of an “FAQ” session. This took a turn when a question was raised focussing on the rhetoric of shale gas being considered a “transition fuel”. The questioner suggesting, “temporary measures have a tendency to become permanent” and wanting to know what measures exist to prevent this permanence and move towards renewables. 

Whilst Ms. Burston was adamant that the UK’s Climate Change Act would be the “overarching thing that will constrain our gas use in the future.” Mr. Egan was less than optimistic. He asserted that “the Climate Change Act will not make people change their habits, you have to persuade people what’s in it for them.” He continued with his strong perspective on this matter by pointing towards the UK’s record on carbon dioxide emissions arguing, “if you take net emissions, the emissions we exported to China in the manufacturing case, we have not reduced emissions at all. All this negotiation, we are not achieving anything, and stopping shale gas is not going to do that, if we choose to stop shale gas tomorrow it will have zero impact on CO2. It’s a much bigger issue that that.” 

Professor Maitland in his concluding response highlighted the bigger issue saying that technology and government intervention plays a vital role and “until we have a proper energy strategy in this country, where there are uncertainties in how we devise that given the global interactions, we will have to become much more opportunistic and selective about particular technologies.” 

With this in mind the debate regarding the future of shale gas in the UK although welcome looks set to continue. If UK is to put the horse before the cart anytime soon on its responsible development of shale gas, it will require a move from talking to effective action. Otherwise a stalemate situation may result and potentially a lost opportunity to minimise energy and climate insecurity. 

Mansoor Ahmad