Frack to the future?
There’s no magic solution to mankind’s finite energy resources. The world and his dog know just how scarce our oil and gas reserves are, and we’re also acutely aware just how unreliable, expensive and untrusted the ‘greener’ alternatives are. So when a potential new source of reliable, finite energy comes along, shouldn’t we be rejoicing?
The fracking furore in Europe is less ‘all hail shale’ and more ‘what the frack?’ Shale gas is slowly but surely transforming the American energy market. The process of horizontal drilling and hydrauling fracturing (‘fracking’ for short) has proven profitable in North America for the past decade, with the continent estimated to be sitting on reserves of 1,931 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of the stuff, and global reserves put at 6,622 tcf. In Europe, there’s a pretty sizeable 624 tcf estimated to sit deep below the continent, but getting at it is proving politically, logistically and economically challenging.
Production of shale gas via fracking techniques has reached 4.9 tcf in the USA – which is a quarter of the country’s overall gas output. Modest estimations predict that by 2035 the USA will become a gas exporter, with shale gas accounting for half of the nation’s entire output.
Europe, although blessed with generous reserves, will struggle to achieve the same levels of output in that time, argue industry experts. There are many reasons for this, most of them geological but a number of geopolitical snagging points have emerged, too.
Firstly, Europe’s shale deposits are buried deeper underground than those in the USA, meaning initial costs are higher. Americans also have a rich and deep history of drilling for gas and oil, which has created a massively competitive industry that is bursting with know-how, technology and equipment. This simply does not exist in Europe. As a result, a single gas well in Europe is likely to cost approximately €20 million to sink, which is some three-and-a-half times higher than in the USA.
And once an American drilling company strikes it lucky, they have a warren of underground, existing pipelines to hitch a ride on in order to get their gas to the masses. Europe has no such network, and the open-access rules enjoyed by America simply do not exist in Europe.
Then there’s politics. Some nations, such as Poland, see their shale gas reserves as a potential economic lifeline, while others – like France – are so concerned that they have already issued a moratorium on fracking. In the UK, there are worries that the techniques used in fracking can cause earth tremors, the possible pollution of groundwater and the accelerated leakage of methane.
The environmental concerns of fracking are a worry on both sides of the Atlantic, but face more vocal opposition in Europe purely because it’s a more densely populated continent. Fracking is a disruptive procedure – more wells are required, more water is needed – and many Europeans will live a little too close for comfort to many of the wells.
With gas prices in Europe approximately double those in the USA, it is understandable that there is a big incentive for the fracking industry to explore the possibilities on the continent. With much of Europe reliant on a hawkish Russia for their gas supply, there is a desire to locate and identify alternative sources. Indeed, the Russians have been getting nervous about the fracking industry, with Gazprom (Russia’s state-controlled gas provider) belittling shale gas extraction efforts and techniques.
It won’t happen overnight, but if fracking ever takes hold in Europe, the continent’s energy market could be in for a revolution of epic proportions.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing is the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurised fluid. Hydraulic fractures may form naturally, as in the case of veins or dikes, or may be man-made in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal seam gas, or other substances for extraction, where the technique is often called fracking or hydrofracking.
This type of fracturing, known colloquially as a frack job (or frac job), is done from a wellbore drilled into reservoir rock formations. The energy from the injection of a highly-pressurised fracking fluid, creates new channels in the rock, which can increase the extraction rates and ultimate recovery of fossil fuels. The fracture width is typically maintained after the injection by introducing a proppant into the injected fluid. Proppant is a material, such as grains of sand, ceramic, or other particulates, that prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped.