What the US figures suggest about our shale gas prospects

For a variety of reasons, the expectation of the number of shale gas wells needing to be drilled in the UK deserves a wider discussion than it has had so far. The suspicion is that the topic is one which the industry and the pro-fracking government want to avoid. Indeed in parliamentary discussion this Tuesday it was said that anti-frackers had been making misleading claims about the number of wells required.

The number will have a significant impact in terms not only of land use, landscape, traffic and other matters of concern, but mainly it is the cumulative risk factor involved in large well numbers that make – even if we believe risks are small – the total risk of incidents of environmental pollution rise to near certainty.

The US Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that the total gas recovered from unconventional wells was 5,336 billion cubic feet in 2010, the highest annual total so far and a big leap up from 2009. It is not certain exactly how many wells resulted in this production, but a 2011 report for the EU said that by 2010 “more than” 50,000 shale gas wells had been drilled.

(As a diversion, it was said in parliament the other day by Peter Lilley, arch manic preacher of the pro-fracking lobby “Given that 2 million fracking wells have been drilled in the United States without harm …”. If anyone is misleading about figures it is frankly not our side! But imagine what is the consequence if he is right. It takes two million wells to produce about twice the annual UK gas consumption. Or one million wells to produce one year’s consumption. Peter Lilley must think his audience is incredibly stupid.)

But back to the figures. Let’s assume that it did take 50,000 wells in the US to generate enough gas to meet UK demand for 2 years. Or 25,000 to produce one year’s consumption. The average output per well is about 100million cubic feet per annum, or .1 bcf. At 40 horizontals per pad according to Cuadrilla’s ambition that would be a minimum of 600 or 700 pads. Probably more, since the industry seems agreed that the rest of the country can not match up to the Bowland Shale prospect.

Looking at it from another angle, if Cuadrilla need 100 pads each of 40 “wells” – I am including each horizontal drilling as a well – that is 4,000.

On the US figures the wells would, however, produce only about .4tcf per year, or 12 tcf over thirty years, which is the maximum lifespan of a well and the period Cuadrilla have talked about. 12 tcf is not much more than half what Cuadrilla were talking about hoping to get out of their licence are, less than half their earlier boast of meeting 25% of the UK’s gas needs, and all that was before the BGS upped the estimates for gas in place. The message is clear. Cuadrilla will need more wells, or they will never approach their expectation or their claims.

On Tuesday minister Fallon told us the anticipated community benefit was 5 to 10 million per pad. That would mean 5 or 10 billion just for the north. But Fallon said the total pot was estimated at 1.1 billion. ie between 110 and 220 pads. The figures do not match up unless we assume the politicians and the industry KNOW that their claims about the enormous benefit of shale gas is a fraud.

The conclusion is clear. To replicate the US experience we would need far more wells than the industry and politicians are saying. If not, then clearly we will never approach the energy security that is claimed as the dvantage of shale gas, the politicians are misleading us.

But there is one more factor that makes it increasingly unlikely that we can get anywhere near eliminating our dependence on gas imports.

The 2010 US figures were for production which included that from many newly-drilled wells, perhaps a third of the 50,000. This explains why the 2010 figures were so much higher than the 2009 production (3.1bcf) and 2008 (2.1tcf). Because of the rapid fall off of well output after the initial year, the 2010 rate of extraction can not be sustained, unless by drilling more and more new wells.

This is why even the figures I drew above for the number of wells needed in the UK is unrealistically low.

With new horizontal drillings from the same base pads to renew a shale gas field’s output or possibly by refracking wells once their output had fallen to low levels perhaps the frackers could control the demand for new wells. But the consequences of that would be the same as for new drillings, just extending into the future the undisputed disruption to the community caused by drilling and fracking activity.

Putting together the cumulative risk of environmental damage, the certainty of rural desecration and interruption of community life, and the fact that we can never achieve the economic and security benefits that are claimed for shale, it is madness to embark on a fracking experience which can turn out at best disappointing and at worst disastrous.

Later today we will find out what the government has in mind to streamline the planning system. It will become even more important to oppose fracking at local level, to mobilise opinion amongst local politicians and the community.

The battle is lost at parliamentary level.

You may also like...