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Shale gas and competitiveness

Posted 01/04/2014 by sevans

Shale gas fracking in the US has slashed energy prices and led to a $100bn boom in petrochemicals investment. But what of the prospects for fracking here in the UK? The UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) report, Shale gas: the facts, sets out some of the issues and attempts to lay to rest some of the concerns. And a recently updated assessment of the UK’s Bowland shale reserves by the British Geological Survey, for example, suggests there are reserves of 1300 trillion cubic feet – at ten times the depth of any US shale reserves, the report points out. That’s enough gas to supply the country for 40 years. 

With UK energy regulator Ofgem recently predicting that spare electricity generating margins could fall to 2% by the middle of the decade as more coal fired power stations close, locally sourced shale gas would improve energy security and lessen the risk of high and volatile prices due to uncertainty about gas imports. The latter now represent almost half of UK gas consumption, the CIA report notes – and, as the ongoing problems in the Ukraine highlight, continued supply is by no means assured.  

While any energy technology will inevitably have drawbacks, fracking takes place at depths where it would be ‘highly unlikely’ to impact on aquifers, the report authors say. While acknowledging that it requires a lot of water to open fissures in shale to release the gas, they point out that the 10-30m litres needed for each well is ‘approximately the same as the amount used to water a golf course for a month’.  Meanwhile, the recent earth tremors caused by fracking activity in Blackpool are dismissed as ‘minor’ and on a par with other natural seismic activity.

Speaking at a CIA chemical writers’ dinner last week, Ineos director Tom Crotty commented: ‘Shale gas is a no brainer, we must have it.’ While we will see a contraction in the UK chemicals industry in coming years, regardless of shale gas, Crotty says that the consequences will be far more serious and could spell the sector’s demise if Europe does not exploit its shale gas reserves. Added to this are Europe’s burdensome climate change regulations, he says. If EU chemical firms cease trading, Crotty warns this could ‘defeat the objective’ as CO2 levels may well rise without access to clever chemistries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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