7 Dec 2010

Shale gas: striking ‘gold’ in Blackpool?

Washington Correspondent

The UK comes a step closer to using a brand new energy source after “substantial” flows of shale gas are found just a few miles inland from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, writes Siobhan Kennedy.

A man flies a kite on Blackpool beach, near where Shale gas has been discovered.

Shale gas is a form of natural gas that is trapped in tiny cracks of rocks buried thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth.

A small company called Cuadrilla Resources back in July became the first in Europe to start drilling for the gas, which has already revolutionised the energy market in America. Channel 4 News was given exclusive access at the time, and reported on this potential new energy source for Britain.

Now, after drilling down more than 4,000 feet into a rock formation known as the Bowland shale, the company has struck gold (well, gas).

“We now know it’s all there,” Chris Cornelius, co-founder of Cuadrilla Resources told Channel 4 News. “It validates the science, the next question is can we produce any of it?”

One of Cuadrilla’s investors, Lucas Group, said in a statement: “Initial indications are that Press Hall #1 (the exploration site) confirms and possibly exceeds the original expectations of management as to the prospectivity of the Bowland shale.”

‘Hydraulic fracturing’

The process Cuadrilla is using to access the gas is known as “hydraulic fracturing”, which means the rocks are gently agitated back and forth, and then water is pumped down, which releases the gas trapped inside the cracks. The gas then travels up a pipe to the surface and is captured and stored.

The big question now is whether or not the fracturing process will release the gas held within these Lancashire rocks. Mr Cornelius said it was one thing to find the gas but another to be able to release it, although he said he was hopeful that they could because the rock was brittle and therefore easier to agitate.

“There’s lots of places around the world where you can find gas, but the question is can you get it out?”

The technology being used by Cuadrilla and his team has already changed the dynamics of America’s gas market, taking the country from growing reliance on imports to a position of near self-sufficiency.

After drilling down more than 4,000 feet into a rock formation known as the Bowland shale, the company has struck gold (well, gas).

Mr Cornelius said Cuadrilla would begin the extraction process in early January and would hope to have its first flare – gas burning at the surface – by early February.

If successful, the find would be extremely significant given Britain’s dwindling energy resources and our increasing reliance on imported gas. Cuadrilla had previously said the amount of shale gas in the Bowland site could meet as much as 5 to 10 per cent of Britain’s energy resources.

Now, after the first samples have been analysed, the suspicion is that the Lancashire fields could hold a lot more.

Now one site has been explored, the drilling rig will be moved to another site on the Bowland Shale to assess the size of the gas field overall. If those explorations also prove successful, then Cuadrilla will look to sell the entire operation to a large exploration company, like Shell, to carry out the expensive and time-consuming production process.

It could still be years before we boil our kettles using gas mined from Lancashire but today’s news certainly seems to have brought the UK one step closer to achieving that goal.

How shale gas works

Unlike conventional gas, which collects in porous rocks and can be released simply by drilling wells into the right rock formations, shale gas is locked in the matrix of less porous rocks. It can only be accessed with a specialised technique, called ‘hydraulic fracturing'.

The gas companies drill downwards into the gas-bearing rock, as much as ten thousand feet below the surface. They then drill horizontally for thousands of feet more. To "fracture" the shale, they pump in a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at very high pressure. The water opens up cracks in the rock, and the sand grains lodge in them and keep them open. This creates space for the gas to flow out of the rocks.

It then travels back up the well bore, and is collected at the surface over the following months. Geologists have been aware of shale gas for decades, but it was not thought possible to extract it economically. A US engineer, George Mitchell, pioneered the technique in an area called the Barnett shale, near Fort Worth in Texas. It is now one of the most productive gas fields in America.