The Blackpool Quakes and UK Shale: Injecting Perspective
“Small earthquake, not many dead” is the well-known winner of a poll among journalists to identify the world’s dullest headline. “Small earthquake in Blackpool” could rival it, except for the suspicion that it may have been caused by nearby hydraulic fracturing in recently drilled wells or ‘fracking’, on the site of the UK’s first shale gas prospect.
The incident has made the Poulton-Le-Fylde area, just a few miles from Blackpool, headline news well beyond UK shores. I know Poulton very well. I used to live in the village. And I played junior school soccer very close to where the British shale gas extraction company, Cuadrilla Resources, has a drilling platform on Preese Hall field. So when Poulton was revealed as the epicenter of the small-scale tremor on May 27, it not unnaturally grabbed my attention.
At time of writing, Cuadrilla, is working with seismic investigators from Keele University and the British Geological Society (BGS) to determine the actual cause of the tremors on April 1 and May 27. But the issue is already receiving attention in the United States after an Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission ruling prevented Cheseapeake Energy from pumping waste water into two Fayetteville wells in March on suspicion drilling may have caused tremors.
Meanwhile, a few background facts help us gain perspective on the Blackpool incident.
A Lot of “hot air”
Britain is hardly known for its earthquakes, but it does have them. In fact, hundreds per year on the same scale as the two Blackpool tremors. According to the BGS, the earthquake on May 27 was recorded at a magnitude of 1.5, the one in the same area on April 1 at 2.3. The epicenter for both has been identified as being within hundreds of meters of the Preese Hall drilling site at depths of 2 and 3.6 kilometers respectively. According to the European Macroseismic Standard (EMS), scale 1 is classified as “not felt”, scale 2 as “scarcely felt” and scale 3 as “weak”.
During the previous 30 days, two similar sized tremors were recorded, one in northern Scotland and one in western Scotland. When it comes to registering scale 1 and 2 tremors, as we have seen, Britain has hundreds per year, mostly in Wales and not far from Blackpool’s north-west coastline.
While the Blackpool incident may, at least temporarily, have handed the wider anti-fracking movement a PR coup, it ought to be borne in mind that fears of earth tremors were not previously even on their radar. Their singular complaint has focused on the issue of the hypothetical pollution of water aquifers; a claim patently made nonsense by decades of hydraulic fracturing experience.
Ironically, just days before the Blackpool tremor took place in late May, British Parliamentarians rejected a French-style moratorium on shale gas drilling, declaring the central claim of detractors over the threat to water supplies as a “lot of hot air”. With North Sea Gas in long-term decline, British MP’s are only too aware of the economic prospect a new domestic source of natural gas offers the country.
Estimates of UK shale gas resources have been fairly pessimistic compared to pronouncements from governments around the world. But all that has recently changed, as estimates of recoverable UK shale gas look to be increasingly, as British shale gas expert Nick Grealy puts it, “world class”. The BGS has long estimated that the one UK site currently being exploited – the Bowland Basin stretching from England’s central spine of the Pennines Hills to the Irish Sea – could contain 5.3 Tcf of gas, around 1 – 2 years of total UK consumption, with offshore reserves probably “much higher”. As the work in the Bowland Basin was temporarily disrupted, Cuadrilla Resources vice-president of exploration, Peter Turner, was telling a second annual shale gas summit in Warsaw, Poland, the UK’s Bowland Basin in fact holds a ” multi-trillion cf shale gas stash”.
Nick Grealy has consistently stated that the official figure likely underestimates actual reserves by at least “a factor of ten”. It is looking increasingly as if Grealy may be right. A recent finding revealed that South Wales alone holds around 34 Tcf of natural shale gas, of which 12.8 Tcf is recoverable. Put into perspective, Britain uses a total of around 3.6 Tcf gas per year. Set that against the giant investment in the Gorgon gas field off-Western Australia which contains around 40 Tcf of natural shale gas deposits – just 6 Tcf more than that Welsh resource – where it is planned to produce 15 million tons of LNG a year for up to 60 years. And other reserves further south in England still await assessment.
60 years of hydraulic fracture mining without a single significant mishap – water or quake-wise – suggests the hydraulic fracturing procedure has no case to answer. In addition, the public needs to be made aware that the technology behind shale extraction is fast-evolving, as with gas injection and silica extraction techniques, the latter removing almost all petro-chemicals from injected water. In particular, Halliburton is working on a project to improve plant efficiency, reducing personnel and traffic visiting to sites and, most significantly, reducing the amount of fresh and recycled water used in the process. But whatever the findings of the Keele University/BGS assessment in Blackpool, it needs to be stated loud and clear by the shale industry that mining ventures can never be risk-free.
Despite the occasional media-induced PR tremor, the Blackpool micro-quake should ultimately register no more concern than if a subway train or truck just rolled by (about what a scale 2 magnitude quake renders). The economic and social reverberations for mankind from shale extraction are just way too seismic.