Professor Peter Styles was one of three experts commissioned by the UK Government in 2011 to write an independent report after fracking caused two tremors in the North of England. Here he explains why Britain’s long-term future depends on the vast reserves of shale gas buried deep beneath the ground.
Britain’s salvation could come from shale gas that has been buried in rocks for 300 million years.
Professor Peter Styles believes that the UK’s vast reserves must be tapped if Britain is to secure its long-term energy needs.
“This is really important,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how extremely vulnerable we are in the UK.
“At the moment 70% of UK domestic heating and cooking is gas and we import half of it.
“Some of it comes from Norway, which is probably all right, but a lot of it comes from Siberia which has not been the most secure form of supply over the years.”
In January 2009, a dispute between Ukraine and Russia over natural gas prices led to deliveries to a number of European countries being cut off entirely.
“We were down to two days’ supply,” he said.
“And when that happens, companies like INEOS ChlorVinyls in Runcorn, which is the third biggest user of gas in Britain, get switched off to protect the domestic supplies.”
But he said on a normal day, Britain only had the capacity to store 12 days worth of gas.
“France has 120 days and Germany has 150,” he said. “But we have 12.”
And the situation is set to worsen.
By 2015 Britain will have closed six coal-fired power stations due to European regulations.
“That will take out about eight to nine Gigawatts of generated electricity out of the system,” he said. “We are talking about one day a week of power lost. We are effectively saying that we will need to do without the amount of electricity and power we would use in one day. How we are going to replace that? Not with wind turbines, I’m afraid, because people are reluctant to have them in their back-yards either.”
Professor Styles said the British public needed to understand the consequences of their actions if they rejected shale gas exploration in the UK, the development of wind farms or refused to allow companies to build facilities to store gas in the UK, a situation that happened in Byley, Cheshire, England, in 2001.
“Their attitude is often: ‘I don’t know anything about it at all but I know that I don’t want it’” he said.
“That’s fine. If people say they don’t want it, I can live with that. But if we make that decision, we have to live with the consequences and that might mean living with less power.”
On January 30, the British nuclear power industry suffered a setback when plans to look for a site for a £12billion underground nuclear waste store in Cumbria were rejected by Cumbria County Council.
“I am not sure that Cumbria County Council realise that they have effectively voted that they will have to live with surface storage of the bulk of the UK’s Radwaste at Sellafield, including more than 100 tons of Plutonium, for probably an extra 10 years (or even more) now,” he said.
“That decision will not help nuclear power. It will stop new nuclear build in the UK because you have to do something with the waste. Yet it is with gas in the medium the only one that can provide us with long-term, clean, in term of CO2, baseload energy.
“It sometimes surprises people when I tell them that Radioactive Ores are found in rocks anyway, that’s where they originate, and that despite their natural radioactivity, it is not trivial to detect them so returning them to the ground for deep geological storage is not as unexpected as they might suppose.
“At the moment all that waste is sitting on the surface at Sellafield, in storage conditions that were designed 50 years ago.”
The other storm that is brewing – and taking up protesters’ energy – is the search for shale gas and the controversial technique, known as fracking, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock at high pressure to extract the gas.
“Shale is so tightly packed that that’s why the gas is still there after 300 million years,” he said.
“But in the Bowland Basin in Lancashire, we have half a mile of this shale. That is four times the thickness of what they have in the US, where it has become almost the complete source of gas for them.”
Protesters believe fracking poses ‘huge risks to the environment’.
But Professor Styles, who was one of three experts commissioned by the British Government in 2011 to write an independent review after the technique was blamed for causing two tremors in Blackpool, says it is safe, if carefully controlled.
“In Stoke-on-Trent in the UK we regularly get bigger earthquakes caused by old mine workings flooding,” he said.
“That is not to say that felt earthquakes are not a disturbance but properly monitored fracking need not generate felt earthquakes at all.”
He said protesters’ fears about water pollution were also unfounded.
“We have the best regulated industry,” he said. “If INEOS ChlorVinyls in Runcorn tip a single can of coke down their waste, they exceed their discharge rate.
“That is how regulated we are in the UK.”
He said one of the chemicals, which would be mixed with the sand and water, was a detergent similar to washing up liquid.
“Someone washing their car doesn’t think twice about pouring that down the drain,” he said. “And paint brush cleaner is awful stuff but again people will be tipping that into their drains,” he said. “Do they think their drains don’t leak?”
Companies drilling for shale gas have been told that fracking must not be carried out within 2,000ft of a watercourse.
“The fracking is actually taking place at 3km down,” said Professor Styles. “Which is most likely to cause contamination?”
He added: “If people want to object, it should not be on spurious, scientific grounds.”
Britain is believed to be sitting on vast reserves of shale gas. How much of it will be accessible is still open to debate.
“The UK is more densely populated than America so that doesn’t help,” he said.
“I can tell you whether it is technically feasible and the developers, to get it out, will have to decide if it is economically possible. And if it’s not, they won’t do it.
“But the hardest issue with almost all of these major issues, such as Radwaste, Carbon Sequestration and most recently shale gas, is persuading people to let you and that can be government, local authorities and local pressure groups.”
And therein lies the problem.
“In the olden days, you got your heat and power from your surroundings,” said Professor Styles. “You went out and cut peat or chopped down trees.
“The invention of the National Grid was a wonderful thing but it distanced everybody from the source of production. It distanced people from the realities of what actually went on.
“Everyone wants energy but they don’t want to live next to it, apart from a roaring log fire.”
Professor Styles said he was disappointed with those who were quite happy to accept gas from countries which were unregulated.
“Leaking pipelines bringing the gas from Siberia have a higher carbon footprint than burning it in the UK,” he said.
“If people are making a point that shale gas will leak more than conventional gas, they need to be aware of that. We might as well take that same volume of CO2 and pump it straight into the air.
“We want our gas but they have our problems. Global change doesn’t know about boundaries. It won’t stop the climate warming here.
“Not only that, but it’s not ethical to believe that it is okay for others to bear the brunt of environmental problems which are due to our energy demands.”
He said shale gas was better for the environment than coal in terms of the amount of harmful greenhouse gases it produces.
“It is half as bad as coal,” he said.
Scores of companies have already been granted Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses by the British Government to search, drill for and get petroleum and conventional, and what is mistakenly known as unconventional, gas such as coal-bed methane and shale gas.
“These companies are contractually obliged to drill some exploration wells as part of those licenses,” he said.