While school protests about climate change under way and the country in chaos over brexit, fracking has quietly restarted in the UK…leading to more earthquakes. But a recent report from a pair of UK academics has cast doubt on the amount of shale gas available in the UK. They suggest that shale gas reserves are likely to be just 20% of the size previously estimated. And its still unclear how much of that can be viably tapped.
The problem boils down to how the original estimate was made. It was based on historic knowledge of this shale formation under the UK Midlands (which has been known about for many decades). Compiling the data on this formation, its size was estimated. The amount of gas available was then calculated with the aid of gas density estimates from US shale formations. However it turns out that the shale formations under the UK are very different from those in the US. Notably thanks to the UK’s wetter climate more water has filtered down into these shale formations, displacing the gas.
Also there’s the fact that the UK is just a smaller country, whose drinking water is more at risk from drilling. And while you can get away with polluting the water supply of some red necks in the Appalachians, do that to a town in the UK and the BGS will shut you down pretty quickly.
And it should be noted that even this new estimate is based on fairly optimistic assumptions, that might not prove to be true (e.g. that at least 10% can be converted from resources to reserves when the global average is closer to 7% for all energy resources and under 1% for unconventional gas). And why would the UK want to drill for shale gas when wind power prices keep falling (now about £40/MWh, half the cost of nuclear). And besides we can just buy the regular stuff off of Norway at dirt cheap prices.
But I bring this up because I think it highlights a very important point, the difference between reserves and resources. Estimates of how much gas is underground is something of a guessing game. Its like trying to guess the number of marbles in a jar…but the jar is opaque (so there could be one rolling around at the bottom, there could a few mixed in with something else, or it could be full to the brim) and the jar is buried several miles underground!
And just because there’s gas under the ground doesn’t mean we can extract it. That’s easier said than done. It might not be technically feasible to do so. Or it might not be economically viable to try. And given how several major investment funds have recently gotten their fingers burned on fossil fuel plays, they might be reluctant to risk it. Plus the go too assumption that lower oil production will automatically mean higher prices and more investment doesn’t hold true anymore. Higher prices means renewables become a more economically viable alternative. And its always cheaper to just conserve.
Bottom line, cornucopian assumptions of unlimited resources don’t stand up to rational scrutiny, as they are based on an assumption that we have access to magical technology and an infinite supply of money. But of course if we did, we’d not need to extract fossil fuels anymore!