Professor Michael Bradshaw offers his perspective. He was recently invited to be a guest panelist at the Conservative Party conference on Energy Security: Is Shale Gas Better For Britain?
Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School, said: "Cuadrilla Resources beginning hydraulic fracturing at their Preston New Road site in Lancashire is a significant milestone for the industry.
"It is the first significant shale gas exploration activity since the company suspended activities at Preese Hall, also in Lancashire, in 2011 after they were linked to seismic activity.
"Everyone in the industry, as well as the Conservative Government, will now be holding their breath and hoping that nothing goes wrong as the pumps roar and water, sand, and chemicals are forced deep underground at high pressure to force small cracks in the shale to release the gas
"Following the problems at Preese Hall, a traffic light system is in now place that may force the company to suspend operations if it triggers a very modest seismic event. The Government has already warned that the thresholds may have to move as the industry learns more about how 'the rocks work.'
"There are mixed opinions about how many exploration wells will needed to determine whether or not shale gas production can be economic in England.
"Equally, there are a variety of forecasts out there about how many drilling pads will need to operate, and wells drilled, to produce enough gas to make a difference to the country's gas security. Production from the North Sea is set to continue to decline in the 2020s and the Oil and Gas Authority forecasts that reliance on imports could go from the current level of around 50 percent to 66 percent by 2030.
"For shale gas production to develop at the scale and pace that would make a material difference the UK's future gas security the industry must prove that it can be socially acceptable, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable.
"Those that protest against shale gas maintain that it has no 'social licence to operate' and the that Government is forcing it through at the expense of local democracy. The industry hopes that it can drill enough wells without upset to demonstrate that it can operate safely and that its impacts can be managed.
"For the moment, at least, natural gas is the most important element in the UK's energy mix, but its future role in the low carbon energy transition is uncertain. In the coming decade, it is certainly not a case of gas or no gas, and the Government and industry argue that there are both environmental and geopolitical benefits of developing new domestic gas resources. Longer term, if gas can be decarbonised, it can be part of the solution, if not then it will fast become part of the problem."
"Whether shale gas development can become socially acceptable and proved to be environmentally sustainable counts for nought if the cost of its production cannot be covered by the domestic gas price.
"The purpose of this exploration phase is to answer this last question, will gas flow at rates that will make it economically viable to produce. The industry will not produce at sufficient scale to influence the UK's gas price, which is subject to the laws of supply and demand in an increasingly global market; but, if the industry is able to gather pace and scale, it is expected that costs will come down.
"Clearly, one well won't start a revolution, but it will begin to answer some of the key questions about the potential for shale gas to contribute to the country's future gas security."
Global Energy at Warwick Business School
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