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It’s madness not to frack

My article for The Sun:

The price of gas is through the roof thanks to Vladimir Putin, who has Europe’s energy market by the throat. Britain is on track to spend a staggering £2BILLION on imported liquefied natural gas from Russia this year as war rages in Ukraine.

Household bills will skyrocket even more than they already were — and could hit £3,000 a year. This is what happens when you rely on imported foreign energy. And what makes it more maddening is that we don’t need to do this. We have supplies here.

Under Lancashire and Yorkshire lies one of the best reservoirs of natural gas in the world, known as the Bowland Shale. At current prices, just ten per cent of this gas is worth several trillion pounds and could keep Britain supplied with gas for five decades. And we will need gas for decades whatever happens: To back up wind farms, heat homes and make vital chemicals for industry.

Last year I asked a Texan gas expert, who has drilled into the Bowland Shale, how it compares with American shale gas reserves. “It’s much better than what we have in the US,” he replied, “better than the Haynesville in Louisiana or the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, thicker and richer in gas”.

The technology to get the gas out is proven, safe and improving all the time. So why don’t we tap this treasure? Because wealthy, posh southerners went up North to protest, and the Government caved in.

The technology is usually referred to as “fracking” but that’s misleading. Hydraulic fracturing has been happening in oil and gas wells, including in Britain, for decades. What changed in the past decade was that it was combined with horizontal drilling and became cleaner and more effective. The latest technology promises to tap shale gas without fracking at all.

In 1997 Nick Steinsberger, of Mitchell Energy, almost by mistake tried cracking shale rocks a mile underground with water, instead of gel, and discovered a recipe for getting gas to flow from the very source rocks of gas, the shales.

The anti-frackers like to call this recipe “toxic chemicals” and imply it could poison aquifers (areas of rock underground that absorb and hold water), but that’s nonsense. The water is mixed with sand and a small amount of soap and bleach, of the kind you keep under your kitchen sink. It is pumped about a mile down, way below the aquifers, and into rocks that are, by definition, full of methane, ethane and petroleum, so they are already “toxic”.

The result of Steinsberger’s break-through was that, in a few short years, America became the biggest gas producer in the world, overtaking Russia. It went from importing gas to exporting it and gave itself some of the lowest gas prices in the world — now less than one-quarter of ours.

When I first visited the Marcellus Shale site in 2011 to understand what was happening, experts here were saying this shale boom was a flash in the pan, would not last and could not cope with low gas prices.

They were wrong.

A few years later I was back in Colorado watching Liberty Oil & Gas producing gas profitably and much more quietly from new wells at low prices. The site was right next to a housing estate. “Aren’t the residents worried about tremors and noise,” I asked. I was told they set up monitors and requested to be informed when the fracking would start, then called back a few days after to say: “Why did you not start when you said you would?”

“But we did,” replied the gas company, “didn’t you detect anything?”

It’s a myth that the American shale gas production happens in the middle of nowhere: Steinsberger started it in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas. Almost everything Friends of the Earth and its eco-luvvie rent-a-crowd say about shale gas is a myth. It does not cause water to catch fire, poison aquifers, spill contaminated waste water, increase radioactivity or cause “earthquakes”.

Small tremors do happen during any kind of underground work, but in Britain the shale gas firms such as Cuadrilla were told to stop if they caused a 0.5 tremor on the Richter scale, equivalent to somebody sitting down hard in a chair, and far fainter than what the coal mining or geothermal — or indeed road and rail transport industries — cause all the time.

Why the double standard? The very people who protest about shale gas are often fans of wind farms. But these pour more concrete (a carbon-intensive mat- erial), use more steel (ditto), spoil more views, require more subsidies and, above all, take up far more land.

A single shale drilling pad with 40 wells fanning out in all directions covers a few acres. For a wind farm to produce that much energy it would have to be 1,500 times larger — and it’s useless on a still day.

Britain imports shale gas from America, but — unlike oil — shipping it adds massively to the cost of gas, as well as the carbon footprint.

The Government was wrong to order a moratorium on shale gas, to order the wells plugged and to repeat its dogmatic objections to developing Britain’s shale treasure at a time when war in Europe is reinforcing the need for energy security.

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By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  energy  environment  the-sun  uk-politics