In a landmark decision made by North Yorkshire council, the go-ahead has been given to Third Energy to move ahead with their plans to hydraulically fracture the shale formations in the area. A couple of points should be noted, however. Firstly, Third Energy’s website indicates that this is a hybrid sandstone / shale formation which should potentially see gas released from the porous sandstone formations a little easier. And secondly, Third Energy states that the next phase will be contract awards and project verification and management, so expect a frustratingly drawn out phoney war.
All wonderfully packed with drama. But what exactly is about to be unleashed on the UK’s densely packed population, and is it a good thing? Let’s try to weigh that up…
Jobs will come. Jobs will come in droves. Mining for minerals has seen boom towns come and go as the opportunists throughout the centuries could attest to. Is that a good thing? It’s good economically, but it creates a temporary infrastructure problem. Look north to the grey skies of Aberdeen and learn from their conundrum. Oil came to the shores of the former fishing port in the mid to late 20th century, and people came with it. Thousands of people. Crossing the twelve miles of the granite city can take well over an hour on weekdays, or it did before the downturn. Things are a little less frantic there now as the cutbacks and layoffs bear their acidic fruit. At the same time a new city bypass, visibly scraped out across the countryside when surveying the landscape at 2000 feet from the bone-shaking comfort of a Sikorsky S92 helicopter, is nearing completion. The decision to go ahead was rubber stamped after decades of debate and delays, and the prospect of being a temporary boom town no doubt weighed in on the delays. But it’s happening, and that’s the benefits mineral extraction can bring. Aberdeen is awash with flash cars and pricey restaurants, but there’s something very different between Aberdeen and what’s about to unfold across the rolling valleys and moors of England.
You see, you can’t actually see the offshore rigs from land, and that’s absolutely deliberate. The closest rig or platform to shore in the Scottish sector takes some 25 minutes on a chopper to get to (probably the 200,000 barrels per day Buzzard Platform) and is over the horizon beyond Peterhead with a prevailing north westerly wind to dissipate the considerable smoke and flames belching silently from the 300 foot high flare boom atop the platform. You have to actually see it to appreciate the scale, the industrial beauty even, of a one hundred foot tall inferno belching out in contrast to hundreds of miles of open ocean. The heat is tremendous. The radiance can be felt to kiss your cheeks from deck level, and is welcome during the winter months. Not all are like this, but almost every platform will flare.
Conventional media, and also the demonstrators protesting at potential fracking sites, tend to also home in on what you can’t see: proppant and chemicals pumped into the ground at high pressure to fracture the ‘tight’ shale formations, enabling flow paths for hydrocarbons to get from the sub-surface rock to the wellbore and onwards to surface. As a person with a good working knowledge of wells and how they are drilled, completed, and abandoned, I find the possibility of a breach of the water table unlikely. Not impossible, but not likely. I could also handle the traffic and even the sight of a rig visiting the well site occasionally. One only has to visit Perenco’s Wytch Farm in Southern England to see how incredibly well the industry can hide things should regulation require.
But, the one thing that cannot be hidden is smell. Natural gas odours can and will permeate through nearby villages and towns. No argument can be made against that. The best flare boom in the world won’t burn 100% of everything when called into action. I’m predicting headlines of worrying smells of gas right now, followed by sensationalist red-top garbage about the north of England facing the equivalent of armageddon should anybody spark up a cigarette.
As a part of the industry I find myself torn. Fracking will deliver economic prosperity, temporarily and acutely disruptively, to the areas where shale abounds, but will foster suspicion and resentment in those opposed.
Either way, it’s coming to a town hall near you so stock up on whisky and haggis, because the Scots are coming to teach you how to drill.