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Shale gas: Waking up to a new dawn

William Gard

The UK’s 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round is eagerly anticipated. Shale gas is very much on the agenda. The possibility of secure, low cost energy for the next few decades and billions of pounds of tax and other revenues will attract the attention of many.

However there are major socio/political, technological and legal hurdles to overcome.

The recent four year hiatus following minor tremors in Lancashire attributed to shale gas exploration was a gift to opponents. In the United States, the use of this technology has only become commonplace relatively recently.

The reality is that the UK does not yet have a driven well and there is no certainty that shale gas is commercially recoverable here. Even if it is recoverable, we are some years away from commercial production. Achieving that represents a great opportunity for the industry, even while there will be simultaneous demand for resources and expertise to develop other energy sources.

If it is to be successful, the industry needs to learn from onshore oil and gas (there are around 2,000 UK onshore oil wells) but perhaps even more so from other analogous sectors. Nuclear energy has for many years had to deal with concerted and well-organised protestors.

Offshore wind has benefitted from the merging of offshore oil and gas expertise with more conventional civil and process engineering, wave and tidal likewise. Onshore, the knowledge gained by wind and solar energy providers on consenting, access and grid connection is likely to be beneficial.

Conversely, one unique issue that shale gas is going to have to contend with is the amount of traffic required to deal with the huge amounts of water needed.

The water industries have a major role to play in providing and then treating the vast amounts of waste water generated. This includes the likely presence of naturally occurring radioactive materials brought up from deep strata.

In addition to the technical, commercial and socio/political challenges, there are also a number of legal hurdles. Due to the crowded nature of our island, legislation has been required to make sure that recovering gas from rock under land owned by others no longer constitutes trespass. As a result, shale gas extraction is not unduly site specific in the way that, for example, solar and wind most definitely are. Sites can therefore be situated to facilitate access and water requirements.

Developers are already teaming up with contractors and water companies to bid in round 14. There are very few experienced players in the market, and most of those are from the US, so now is the time for UK businesses to gear up to make sure that they get their share of the market.

  • Will Gard is a chartered civil engineer and a partner at Burges Salmon

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