UK shale gas overhyped because geology is unsuitable for fracking – Scottish research

pnr 170812 Frack Free Creators - Knitting Nannas Lancashire3

Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site where drilling is expected to begin this week. Photo: Frack Free Creators – Knitting Nanas of Lancashire

As Cuadrilla prepares to drill the UK’s first horizontal shale gas wells, research from a Scottish university suggests the country’s geology won’t support fracking.

Professor John Underhill, Chief Scientist at Heriot-Watt University, said today Britain could be 55m years too late for a shale gas revolution. Shale-bearing rocks may not be suitable for fracking because they have been uplifted, tilted and deformed by geological changes. He said:

“It would be extremely unwise to rely on shale gas to ride to the rescue of the UK’s gas needs only to discover that we’re 55 million years too late.”

He said geology had been sidelined in assessments of the UK’s shale gas potential.

“The implication that because fracking works in the US, it must also work here is wrong.

“Both sides of the hydraulic fracturing debate assume that the geology is a “slam dunk” and it will work if exploration drilling goes ahead.

“The science shows that our country’s geology is simply unsuitable for shale oil and gas production.”

Professor Underhill said there were areas in the UK with large potential deposits. But according to research based on seismic imaging of the country’s underlying geology, he said the basins had been uplifted, cooled, pressured and deformed by folds and faults. This made them “detrimental” to the recovery of shale gas.

He said:

“The only question that has been addressed to date is how large the shale resource is in the UK.

“The inherent complexity of the sedimentary basins has not been fully appreciated or articulated and, as a result, the opportunity has been overhyped.”

Supporters of UK shale gas argue that it should be developed to help Britain be less dependent on imports, now running at 55% and expected to increase.

But Professor Underhill suggested that shale gas may not be the solution to energy independence:

“There is a need to factor this considerable and fundamental geological uncertainty into the economic equation.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that the most successful US shale regions, like the Marcellus, Barnett and Haynesville plays, were in continental interiors with simple structures. The shale was buried at 2-3km, putting it in what he called “the goldilocks zone”: not too hot, not too cold, just the right temperature.

The US shale areas were also relatively stable and undeformed, supporting the use of subsurface imaging, gas and oil detection and directional drilling needed for shale exploration.

But the UK shale regions were very different, Professor Underhill said. More than 55 million years ago, sedimentary basins, including those considered to contain large shale resources, had been buckled against the stable interior of continental Europe.

“Areas that were once buried sufficiently deeply with temperatures at which oil and gas maturation occurs, lifted to levels where they are no longer actively generating petroleum.

“They have also been highly deformed by folds and faults that cause the shales to be offset and broken up into compartments. This has created pathways that have allowed some of the oil and gas to escape.”


UK Onshore Oil and Gas, the industry, body (UKOOG), told DrillOrDrop this morning, said more exploration was needed. Chief Executive, Ken Cronin, said:

“The industry is currently in the process of 3D seismic surveying, core drilling and flow testing in various parts of the country to determine a number of questions including the extent of the geology and whether gas will flow commercially – this process of exploration is an industry standard around the world.

“Consequently the data that Professor Underhill based his work on is limited. All operators are very much aware of structural complexity in parts of the European continent and the programme of 3D seismic acquisition is designed to quantify this in detail for the first time.

“The notion that all North American unconventional plays are structurally less complicated than in Europe is questionable.

“It is too early to make any firm predictions but with imported gas predicted to rise to 80% by 2035 it is important that we get on and complete this work.”

Geologist Nick Riley, a support of shale gas exploration, said:

“Professor Underhill is correct about the basins in the UK being more structurally complex and having a different burial history than the classic shale basins of the USA.

“Industry is well aware of the geological issues in the UK, hence the need to drill and test. So let’s get on with it.”

84 replies »

  1. Prof Underhill is incorrect in saying we import significant pipeline gas from Russia. This is not reflected in the UKGOV statistics published last month, , or in recent years. He is correct about the UK’s exposure to import dependency and the fundamental need for gas. He is correct about the basins in the UK being more structurally complex, and having a different burial history, than the classic shale gas basins of the USA. He uses, as his prime example, the Weald Basin, without mentioning that the BGS resource assessment had already shown that basin to be a poor prospect for shale gas. Industry is well aware of the geological issues in the UK, hence the need to drill and test. So let’s get on with it!

    • Just note that many expert doubters existed in the US 40 years ago with respect to shale gas prospects. Many expert doubters existed in the US 15 years ago with respect to shale oil prospects. The people closest to the matter (Cuadrilla & Centrica) who own the most pertinent data (flow rates from fracked wells in the Bowland) appear ready to invest. That commitment speaks volumes as to their beliefs about the prospectivity of UK shale in the Bowland. They could be wrong, but as Nick Riley suggests, we will find out soon enough. It is foolish for those with less data to claim that they have definitive answers with respect to UK shale.

    • Who decides whether the prospect is commercial ? The recent high court ruling re licence extension and Government ability to change the licence terms and conditions would seem to determine that ‘commercial’ is determined solely by the company, and that the public will not have access to the underlying business case as it will be deemed commercially sensitive. And how do they determine commercial viability if many of the costs appear to be socialized. We are currently in negative tax receipts for North Sea oil and gas due to Government policy. Recent IMF report suggests that worldwide fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of 5Tn dollars – greater than the amount spent on healthcare worldwide. We need gas and oil and will do for the immediate future. However security of energy supply is actually political so it seems daft that a Government hell bent on fracking is also pulling out of the European Union in a manner which endangers that security of supply.

      • Michael Roberts. I assume the the article in the”The Coversation” was wriiten by the name attached to it. Are you suggesting a ghost writer? I think I know who you are probably suggesting – but have no direct evidence that your hunch is true. Anyway – the truth will out – it always does.

  2. If someone told you that you would burn your hand if you poured boiling water over it I would be inclined to listen and stop…..

    Let’s focus on what IS there and continue with renewable energy. Yes changes will have to be made to people’s mentality and energy addiction (or not as technology improves Mr Musk et al), but we did it before, from wood, to coal and steam to gas and nuclear; its now the turn of wind and solar and even back to water as was a reliable power source for many of the mills.

    Money is the only thing stopping the sensible changes; money stuck in ‘dead’ assets of oil and gas. Shale gas lobbyists talk about change in attitudes but still live in the twentieth century; catch up, put up and move on. Gas is dead, long live the sun.

    • Good job you weren’t in charge of oil exploration when the widely held view was that there was no oil under the Arabian peninsula; that it was only in Iran and Iraq.

      • ..and when Ziegler (Shell) said there would be no Carboniferous oil & gas would produced from the offshore UK.

  3. Sherwulfe, you can of course to chose not to use any fossil fuels and divest yourself of any activity, heating, transport, food or manufactured products that are not completely from renewable resources. That personal view/credo, however, cannot be transcribed at national level very quickly. It is not just about money – it is about inertia and the huge infrastructure changes required. These take time, good governance, and technological development. Gas is part of that transition.

    • Nick, you have some fair points. We don’t disagree on this.

      It only take time because of the reluctance of the big oil and gas conglomerates threatening to withdraw support to minority funded political parties. It’s about political will. Good governance puts the needs of the majority before the needs of the few, people before business.

      It is a common misconception that energy and energy on demand is a right. It is not. It is an expectation. Most of the world lives on small amounts of often sustainable energy and are the most impacted because of the negative affects of carbon. I would rather hear the moans of a ‘first worlder’ that the power has gone off for an hour; than the screams of a child who has lost its family in flooding due to raised sea levels, starvation through accelerated climate change, war over food and resources fueled by greedy countries….

      I live in the real world, but have not always done so. Its ironic that the shale gas invasion has called many of us to account about our expectations and impact on the planet. For that I will always thank them.

      In the meantime, we can all do our ‘bit’. I find it most perplexing that many of us who have computers and phones have back up battery devices in case of a power outage, but not for our house? I appreciate that efficiency has been a problem with these, but they are now available. If all houses were fitted with a house battery, would we stop turning in our sleep worrying that the lights are going to go out? (I hear you say, what about the cost. Its a good question and one that can be debated on an appropriate blog 🙂 )

      We as a species have caused the extinction of so many others. When called to account excuses are made or ignorance profaned. But we are doing the same to our own species with the same excuses. The planet will live on, but without us. A sobering thought. For me I would like to stay. So I will continue making the small changes we all should be making, and bigger changes will follow. It’s that trickle into a stream into a river……

      • Sherwulf, I am no supporter of the main political parties. And yes we can all do our bit. The minority parties, are far too optimistic and disingenuous about what can be achieved with unrealistic timescales & targets,. and this over-optimism has spilt over into the Labour Party energy manifesto. As regard renewables in growing economies – take a look at China and India.

        • Unrealistic timescales and targets are only set by those who want failure.

          Look at where renewable generation has progressed to over the last 10-15 years. We need the best engineers to use their problem solving skills and intelligence to achieve the goal which is needed, instead of being diverted into dirty energy. We need action and fast.

          It is exciting that some of the more liberal political parties of the world are now holding swagger but it needs momentum and positive encouragement from those who can, not ‘sky is pink’ psychology from those who are bent on filling their dirty mattresses with more blood money.

          Time to Act. The clock is ticking….

          • Sherwulfe – I did point out to you the massive infrastructure change that will be needed to bring in a renewables only energy supply. With current technology masive amounts of metal, aggregrate, and cement/concrete raw materials will need to be dug out of the ground, procesed, transported and installed. Huge areas of our land would need to be covered in devices to capture, rather inefficiently, a low density energy source. Think about it. So the Labour & Green Parties promising to have a renewables only electricity sytem for the UK by 2040 is sheer cloud cuckoo land. We cannot even electrify our railways – we lack the skills, we lack the fabrication/manufacturing, and despite hiking raol fares – we lack the funds!!!

  4. Of course we know that the shales have not leaked their gas – that’s the whole point of shale gas and why BGS could do resource estimates of gas in place – so Prof Underhill’s arguments about burial history and post 55m year uplift are overplayed. The issue as to whether we can commercially & safely  extract shale gas from UK geology can only be proven or disproven by exploration drilling and testing. I have long been against moratoria  for this reason. How else can we learn whether UK geology is suitable unless we explore and test???

    • Of course we do know that the only UK fracked shale gas well caused 50 seismic events, buckled the well and left Cuadrilla asking for the future seismic threshold to be set at 2.6m which is higher than the 2.3m earthquake of 2011.

      Regarding the very important issue of Cement bonds,

      In a correspondence with HSE Cuadrilla were looking for guidance on when a cement bond log was required and they were asking who was responsible for the interpretation of the logs.

      Not very reassuring.

      And when they finally got round to doing a job they didn’t do before they started fracking Preese Hall we find evidence of integrity issues with ‘several areas of poor bond’

      Click to access 5065-annex-a.pdf

      We have already learned.

      • John, I am fed up with having to repeatedly explain to yourself and others about the insignificance & context of the 2011 2.3 mag event and the fact that portion of well at Preese Hall that buckled was designed so it cold be perforated, in the shale zone,, at a depth way below any integrity issues. So let’s get that clear!

    • And the question remains, why bother testing. We really don’t need this despite all the empty rhetoric. if you want to ‘go for it’ just to prove a point it makes no sense. Put the money and engineering expertise into something that will work. Stop wasting time and focus on the real issues.

      • That’s right Sherwulfe, there is enough pixie dust around to solve all of the UK’s energy requirements!

        • Hey Peeny, good to hear from you. As you seem to have the world’s supply of pixie dust, perhaps you could sell it and make a fortune…

  5. The elephant in the room about changing to other sources of energy, is that economics will accelerate this if main stream existing energy types can be made less expensive. Without that, we will be relying upon subsidising sites such as Hinkley through tariffs, household energy bills will rise and the public will fall out of supporting alternative energy, especially when they are rushed into and show poor economics for the householder. If the core energy costs for the householder are modest, then support will come for development of alternatives.

    I have two sons, one builds houses, the other sells houses. Apart from a small percentage new build houses contain gas central heating, as do most of the older properties. Cheaper gas, ideally gas modified to remove CO2 from the equation (hydrogen), is the logical answer. Whether the UK can produce it, we will see. If not, there will be increased shipments from fracking sites in USA.

    Logic is a rare commodity. There appears to be a preference for 2000 ship movements in/out of our major oil refinery per year, rather than expand the (roughly) 5% UK on-shore oil that is processed there. Great work for the pilots and the refinery does a great job at avoiding marine pollution-to date, but the carbon footprint is obviously large and just might be possible to reduce by more effort on land.

    But, will not happen quickly because we are told the oil wasn’t there, then even if there, it won’t flow (“the geology is wrong”), and when it is seen to flow back round the circle to, we don’t need it. Meanwhile, demand increases (eg Heathrow/Gatwick expansion), and unless bigger ships are used, so will the ship movements.

    Strange world, but not very logical.

  6. Hyped? this article is Hyped. It is an Exploratory rig , that will help to answer the stupid question. How can you be a qualified person without understanding the meaning of explore.
    Such HYPE Nothing to see here, move on.

  7. The UK’s geology is the 0ne of the reasons, why British coal was so expensive to mine. With all the faults, and seams varying in size from a few inches to several feet deep. It meant extracting coal was difficult and expensive, unlike in the USA and Europe. These faults, would make ‘fracking’ a very hit and miss affair. With a well-head having to be ‘fracked’ far more frequently, than those in the USA or Australia. With an increase in water and chemical use, use of fossil fuels (diesel) and fugitive methane emissions. A point I have made, to even those Greens, who support shale gas.
    Shale gas ins not the way forward and as with all fossil fuels and nuclear, it relies on massive subsidies: Fossil fuel subsidies racking up trillions in health costs –
    We need to urgently reduce our energy consumption, especially of fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency (something sadly lacking in our buildings, especially new build) and invest in real renewables solar, wind, tidal, and small hydro.
    P.S. And yes, because of the faults within the UK’s geology, subsidence and earthquakes are real possibility. I can see Betham Tower in Manchester, come falling down if we continue with ‘fracking’ and coal-bed methane extraction!

    • And the UK geology is also one of the reasons that the Bowland shale is seen as possibly being very economic. Shales are not nearly as thick as the Bowland in the US. This means there is the potential to extract more hydrocarbons per well pad than in the US. The economics of that could be powerful enough to eventually make extraction costs lower in the UK than in the US. Time will tell.

  8. This type of article is meaningless. We can argue from either side of the fence till our faces turn blue. Physical exploration is the only way to prove or disprove any ‘academic’ research paper. We aren’t far away so let’s see the outcome.

    • Patrick

      Yes, coal mining was expensive here, as cheap transport makes it easier to import coal from areas where conditions are more benign. Indeed the Russians have broken a world record in July, getting 1567000 tonnes off one coal face in July 17. Against those sort of production rates, combined with large opencast sites it was always going to be tough to compete in a very mature mining country, so densly populated.

      Re fracking and faults, at the INEOS road shows, the geologist was at pains to point out that faults were a key target for the 3 d seismic. Who wants to lose frack fluid and pressure up a fault, rather than frack the shale. No one wants to frack more than they need to. So it’s not a given that each well would need more fracking, rather that ( as I understand ) the identification of sweet spots ( fault free, gas rich etc) would be key to any success.

      Re reducing energy consumption, in the week, 3 weeks ago, it was reported that a Swedish study concluded the best thing we can do to reduce our CO2 footprint is
      1. Do not have children ( or maybe only 2, it was vague on this point )
      2. Ditch the car’ walk or cycle.
      3. Do not fly ( no holidays abroad, no business trips etc ).

      The context was that in the UK we produce 7 tonnes of CO2 per person on average, against 16 for America and 2 for the developing world. Using low energy light bulbs et. and so on does very little to reduce our footprint compared to the three key reduction actions above.

      Unfortunately they did not give a link to the study.

  9. Physical exploration in itself is not the major threat. The major threat is full scale production, which is why so many of us against onshore oil and gas are against exploration. Devastation awaits our, our, countryside should full scale production ever take place. It will not be perfect. There will be problems, just as there have been with exploration so far. Local communities supposedly ‘hosting’ this industry will be savagely disrupted. Any financial reward (aka compensation) will provide no recompense for that disruption and destruction of our rural way of life. The whole of the UK must aggressively tackle energy reduction alongside the development of renewable energy systems and battery technology or other energy storage mediums. Yes, it’s a massive task, but at some stage it is inevitable that we cannot continue to rely on natural gas for space heating, and the sooner we grasp this fact the better; the better for our environment and for limiting the impacts of climate change. The solutions do not have to be more gas.

    • Three key fears and M Kenward goes goes for the first one. 1. Landscape impact will be minimal, 2, water pollution almost impossible and 3, local natural gas over imported is natural far better for CO2.

      From day one in the UK, the notion that there would be hundreds, dozens or even tens of well pads has been a none starter. Whatever the landscape impacts, it wouldn’t work because we don’t have the space. But modern tech doesn’t need surface space. The UK is ideally situated to have multiple horizontal wells going out miles due to the license system of large contiguous blocks. We see now even in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania that costs are tumbling with long horizontals, and the UK is perfect for those.

      Also remember we need very little to make a significant difference, completely replacing UK LNG imports from perhaps as little as Lancashire alone. All this rubbish about how shale will never work was has echoes from the US debate of only six years ago, where shale was a “bubble” or hype and would never work. I, among others, admit to be being horribly wrong on US shale: It’s far, far more productive than anyone dared dream, it’s much cheaper than anyone dared think and the damage has been almost non existent. Look at the bizarre List of the Harmed for instance:

      Natural gas is fundamentally boring. It won’t be boring if the lights or heat go out, but I think the key issue in the UK is peak journalists, especially numerous during the summer, who have nothing better to do than whinge – after all that’s their job, to attract eyeballs to their sites. Or they are academic subsidy junkies, permanently on call to study (for as much as they can get) and who will inevitably discover that that “more study is needed”. I’m old enough to remember when we had twenty minutes of news a day and we lived quite well on it.

    • Wind turbines will always win hands down at destroying the landscape from a visual perspective. The worlds population is increasing at a faster rate than ever, the rural life will eventually become a myth. Times are changing and certain pockets of society are failing to realise this. There is no fast track alternative energy solution so stop beating on about it.

      • ‘Wind turbines will always win hands down at destroying the landscape from a visual perspective’

        If it is about visual perspective, ‘rugby pitch’ sized industrial units littering the landscape with lights blaring, constant and loud noise emanating, trucks arriving and departing like ants in summer….hummm, know which I and the four-fifths would prefer!

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