Category: gas networks

Why shale gas is not the right answer for the UK’s short-term energy needs

"Hydraulic Fracking" by phxlaw1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Hydraulic fracturing in Colorado

On September 22nd the UK Government announced the official lifting of the moratorium on fracking for shale gas. This was a ban put in place in 2019 after much opposition from community groups and environmentalists, as well as a report by the Oil and Gas Authority.

The Sustainable Gas Institute’s Dr Jasmin Cooper began her research career investigating shale gas and shares her expert perspective on why this policy U-turn could be a red-herring for the UKs energy strategy.

Shale gas is natural gas that is produced from shale formations. It has the same composition and chemical properties as the natural gas we’re all familiar with, but the key difference is in the rock the gas is extracted from. In conventional gas reserves, like those in the North Sea and Qatar, natural gas is extracted from a porous rock such as sandstone. Being porous, there are channels the gas can travel through which makes extraction relatively straightforward. Shale is not porous, so the natural gas is held in pockets which are not connected. Therefore, to make the gas extractable, fractures must be artificially created to connect the pockets and provide a pathway for extraction. The process, called hydraulic fracturing, has become more commonly known as ‘fracking’.

Hydraulic fracturing is when a mixture of water, sand and chemicals (including antibacterial agents and chemicals which make the solution more viscous) is injected into rock under high pressure.  Large quantities of the solution are needed along with energy to inject it at the pressures required.

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto pledged the moratorium would not be lifted unless hydraulic fracturing could be proven to be safe scientifically – in regard to earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing. But since then, there has been little scientific evidence to prove it is. The British Geological Survey (BGS) published a report on September 22nd 2022 which found that more work is needed to understand the risk of earthquakes, as well as how to manage those risks.

Hydraulic fracturing has been carried out on a large scale in the USA, where it led to a significant increase in natural gas production and is credited with transforming their gas market.

Understandably, the transformation in energy security and the jobs a shale gas industry could create are put forward as the main arguments for developing it in the UK. The energy crisis in Europe as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict  – with gas prices climbing to a record high as mainland Europe shifts away from its dependence on Russian gas – is another driver of the Government’s decision to lift the ban- with the intention of boosting domestic production and lessening the rise in energy costs.

But the UK is quite different to the USA, in the geology, extent of our reserves and onshore infrastructure to manage any gas extracted. As of September 2022 there are no commercially operating shale gas wells in the UK, and just two exploration wells, both owned and operated by Cuadrilla.

It takes time to determine whether a shale gas well will produce marketable quantities of gas, and many tests are needed.  Surveying the geology of the site, studying core samples for the presence of gas, as well as hydraulic fracturing tests so see how much gas can be liberated – these all take time.

Given the minimal shale gas activity in the UK since 2010  – when the first UK shale gas exploration well was drilled – it is highly unlikely the industry could grow in size and scale at the rate required to have the desired impact on energy supply and security.  It’s also questionable whether shale gas could have an impact on energy prices. The UK’s oil and gas industry is largely in the North Sea. Unlike the USA there is little onshore supply chain infrastructure. Significant investment into new infrastructure to process shale gas to pump it into the UK’s gas grid will be needed. These, in addition to the costs of drilling and hydraulic fracturing could make shale gas far less cost competitive than the Government are suggesting.

Overall, it is unlikely the lifting of the moratorium will have an impact the UK’s energy security and prices. The small scale and limited activity of the industry mean there is a long way to go before the industry could reach commercial scale productivity. The strong social and environmental opposition would likely also slow down any progress in developing a shale gas industry. All in all, shale gas is not going to be an answer to the UK’s energy crisis and other avenues would be better to explore.

Does gas hold a future with the Paris climate targets?

FaceLeonie Marie Emilie Orhan is a student on the MSc Sustainable Energy Futures course at Imperial College. She previously did her undergraduate at the University of Warwick in Mechanical Engineering. Leonie wrote a summary blog post about the latest white paper, ‘Best uses of natural gas within climate targets’ and launch event.

The sixth white paper from the Sustainable Gas Institute ‘Best uses of natural gas within climate targets’ focuses on the future uses of natural gas within the 1.5°C Paris climate targets for both 2050 and 2100. Through the analysis of different gas use scenarios (and energy mixes) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it highlights the uncertainties in the future use of natural gas and highlights the potentials of Carbon Capturing and Storage (CCS) and of hydrogen in decarbonisation. It also focuses on the impact policies have on the development and growth of these industries through investment attractivity.

The presentation (watch the launch video) was hosted by the author, Dr Jamie Speirs, a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Gas Institute and the Centre for Environmental Policy, and co-authors, Luke Dubey, a Research Assistant at the Sustainable Gas Institute, and Naveed Tariq, a PhD Researcher from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London.

Gas use differs across regions

It is evident that natural gas usage must be reduced not only to attain the 1.5°C targets, but also to conserve fossil fuel reserves for applications which do not yet have viable substitutions. A large majority of the scenarios agree with this, with large variations in different regions. The report shows that Europe’s consumption is set to drop rapidly through substitutions to greener solutions, while in Asia, natural gas would increase until 2050 (before decreasing) due to a growing middle class which relies on affordable energies. I found that highlighting these differences brought light to the individuality of solutions required if they are to consider not only the environmental perspective, but also the social and economic facets.
The importance of carbon capture and storage

 

Natural gas use was also shown to decrease significantly faster without carbon capture and storage (CCS) than with CCS. This demonstrates that to meet the 1.5°C targets while allowing a more significant transition period to other more sustainable energies, CCS must develop quickly. However, CCS development is controlled by economic incentives and policies as these are needed to be in place to draw in investments to enable the growth of the CCS industry.

Natural gas and hydrogen

In sectors for which decarbonisation is more difficult, such as domestic heating or transport, hydrogen could provide a substitute for the use of natural gas. Currently, hydrogen can be separated into blue and green hydrogen: blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas and green hydrogen using renewable energies. Due to the high costs of green hydrogen production, blue hydrogen is currently more favourable to the economy. Although its production does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, its growth is necessary to pave the way for green hydrogen. This is due to the infrastructure needs of hydrogen production, storage, and distribution.

The UK government has stated in its recent Hydrogen strategy that both CCS and hydrogen will be essential to decarbonisations with notable milestones based on an increase in hydrogen production (1GW by 2025 and 5GW by 2030), an increase in CCUS clusters (2 by 2025 and 4 by 2030) and hydrogen heating and hydrogen town trials in 2025 and 2030. This shows a\strong interest from the government in these economies, as the UK seeks to transition quickly to enable a strong economic growth.

The White Paper points out that the scenarios analysed are based on the current knowledge of greenhouse gas emissions, which lacks an understanding of methane global warming potentials and may be affected by other factors in the future. This points out the need for a regular analysis and updated predictions and shows that there could be discrepancies between the scenarios presented and the future.

One of the main points I feel was conveyed in the report and presentation was the lack of policies to incentivise the growth of CCS and hydrogen production, which have the potential to play large roles in reaching the 1.5°C targets. Policies would need to centre around the development of the infrastructures required, the realignment market regulations to meet the demands of CCS and hydrogen, and agreements for international trade of hydrogen.The differences in hydrogen demand depending on how strong policies were really illustrated these points, with few and weak policies resulting in a demand over three times smaller than for strong ones, while with policies whose strengths and numbers are at a theoretical maximum, the demand came close to twice that of strong policies.

Expert views on the report

Dr Susana Moreira, a Senior Gas Specialist at The World Bank, offered a commentary which outlined the importance of investing in more electricity grids to cope with the demand and ease the changes in economy required to pave the way to a net zero future. Another pertinent point was that of connecting everyone to the grid and the adjustment that gas producing countries would have to make, not only to their electricity structures, but also to their economies. The impact of hydrogen production to the environment and communities was also pointed out. Overall, her commentary brought light on economic, social, and environmental issues which are key factors in the consideration of a net zero future.

Martin Lambert, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, focused his commentary on emphasising the need of investments and policies required to do so.

Overall, the paper shows that to meet the 1.5°C targets, CCS and hydrogen must benefit from policies to encourage investments and regulations to direct the market as meeting the targets requires reliance on CCS and hydrogen. I feel more emphasis should have been placed on the idea that although the population is projected to increase to over 10 billion by 2100 (UN Population Facts, December 2019) natural gas usage is predicted to decline.