By Clive Wakely. The discovery of a vast natural gas field beneath the north-west of England may eventually prove to be good news for gas consumers, is raising concern amongst environmentalists and could affect this country’s commitment to CO2 reduction.
It is claimed that the huge scale of the gas reserves could potentially not only revolutionize Britain’s energy supply prognosis and create thousands of new jobs, but lead to Britain “soft-peddling” on its CO2 reduction targets.
However, following the experiences of other countries in the controversial technique of gas extraction proposed for the field, environmentalists are alarmed over potential threats to regional fauna and flora, if not to public health itself.
It has been revealed from data accumulated from a number of exploratory wells around Blackpool that reserves may extend to as much as 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.
This is a volume that is on a par with that of big energy exporting countries such as Venezuela.
To fully exploit the resource experts suggest that between 500 and 1,000 wells may need to be sunk, substantially reducing Britain’s reliance on imported gas and creating around 5,000 new jobs.
Furthermore, should the exploitable reserves be as huge as claimed then it is believed that gas companies will find it difficult to maintain current extortionate pricing structures, both for commercial and domestic users.
However the news has alarmed environmentalist groups, particular those seeking an expansion of wind power and other green energy alternatives.
Leading environmentalists have expressed their opposition to a technique used to force gas into the wells known as hydraulic fracturing – better known as “fracking”.
This controversial process, which involves pumping water-based compounds at high pressure into porous shale rock to displace the gas, has been banned in parts of the US and France over fears that ground water aquifers could become contaminated.
The process requires the pumping of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under pressure down wells into gas-rich shale deposits.
The pressure further fractures these shale deposits creating fissures through which natural gas can flow up to the surface through collecting wells.
One worrying aspect of this form of gas “harvesting” is that the natural gas industry is not legally obliged to disclose the chemicals used in the process.
In other countries where the process has been employed scientists claim to have discovered the use of volatile organic compounds such as toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and benzene; the latter being a carcinogenic compound.
Interestingly only last year a documentary film was shown in the United States entitled “Gasland”.
The film included footage of homeowners setting fire to drinking water coming from household taps, demonstrating the volume of combustible methane contained in their drinking water and attributed to contamination from nearby fracking operations.
A spokesman for Cuadrilla, the company accredited with making the gas field discovery, said he was enormously encouraged by the potential of the Lancashire region, which appeared to have the same potential as the best shale gas producing areas in Texas.
He said it was not possible to say what the exact amount of recoverable reserves would be without further drilling and he admitted 200 trillion cubic feet was a very large number.
He also added that about 400 wells could be expected as a conservative estimate – with up to 800 in the licence area between Blackpool and Southport over the next 15 years.
In what is seen as recognition of concern over the fracking process the spokesman stated that the company was drawing up a plan to be submitted to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) shortly and gave the assurance that it would not engage in any further fracking until the DECC had seen the report and was happy about public safety issues.
However the discovery potentially poses a major problem for the government, which is committed to an ambitious programme of CO2 reduction.
The burning of natural gas results in significant CO2 emissions.
Yet, if commercially exploitable reserves are present on the scale suggested then developing the field would be a far cheaper and reliable alternative to wind and solar power.
Meanwhile leading environmentalist group, Friends of the Earth, has restated its opposition to fracking – at least until the safety and environmental impact, as it affects the region, is fully understood.
A spokesman added: “We are also worried that a new shale gas goldmine would take money away from renewables.”
In an age of increasing austerity, few doubt that any government can afford to ignore such a major energy resource on its own doorstep should it be proven to be as extensive and as commercially exploitable as some maintain; meaning Britain’s commitment to meeting CO2 reduction targets could be extended well into the future as a consequence.
And should the field live up to the claims made of it then it brings into question the need to embark on a new generation of nuclear power plant building, as gas fuelled ones should serve the purpose intended just as well.