Another load of (shale) gas and hot air

shale gas extraction

Gold-diggers

Cuadrilla Resources, the UK company , has announced it is suspending shale gas test drilling in Lancashire, England, following a second earth tremor in the area during the past two months. The magnitude of the tremors is of the order of up to 2.3 on the Richter scale (provisional estimates). The company stated they would examine data collected by the British Geological Survey before deciding “whether to resume” test drilling.[1] Update: UK Independent [1A]

So!

So what’s the big deal? We all need new sources of energy, particularly given the growing rection to nuclear energy in the light of the Fukushima “incident” in Japan. Switzerland and Germany have already declared they will abandon the technology in the medium-to-long-term (the 2020s). But we all remain rapacious consumers of energy in various forms, nationally and globally – we need all we can get, for as long as we can get, as cheaply as we can get it, to function in the 21st. century; and, if one door is closed, another has to be broken down and opened, as soon as possible.

Hence the increasing importance and desirability of shale gas extraction. A UK parliamentary committee recently recommended the country should support the process, despite environmental concerns triggered by practical experience in the US. There, environmentalists (and normal householders in some affected areas) maintain that shale gas excavation has already contaminated their environment, even down to poisoning their drinking water. I myself have seen TV items showing householders in US igniting the water that flows from their ‘faucets’ with cigarette lighters.

Shale gas drilling, commonly known as ‘fracking’, involves a process of drilling vertically to find hard shale rocks that are then shattered (‘fractured’) with explosives, to provoke the release of trapped gas which is then piped to the earth’s surface for storage and eventual distribution as a valuable energy source. The Financial Times offers a clear animation of the process[2].

Well, at least the UK company Cuadrilla is being cautious. The chief executive is quoted as saying that: “We take our responsibilities very seriously and that is why we have stopped fracking operations to share information and consult with the relevant authorities and other experts.

“We expect that this analysis and subsequent consultation will take a number of weeks to conclude and we will decide on appropriate actions after that.”

UK: recent seismic activity

What bothers me

So, why am I concerned? After all, the UK is not high on the international list of seismologically-active regions. Even so, the country experiences hundreds of earth tremors every year – many not discernible by humans (see graphic). The last earthquake – as opposed to tremor – recorded there occurred in 2007 (4.2 Richter)[3]. I well remember being at the epicentre of the one that occurred on the morning of 19th. July, 1984, in North Wales[4]. At least that one registered 5.4 (Richter) – much more effective than any alarm clock!

What intrigues me is that, given the above, and assuming the UK manages successfully to regulate (oh, yes, good regulators!) this relatively new energy technology in a fairly pacific seismological territory, that Bulgaria has recently granted a concession (to be followed, apparently, by two others within a month or so) that allows a company a 5-year permit to test and investigate an area near Novi Pazar (between Shumen and Varna) for the same shale gas ‘fracking’.

A few Bulgarian issues

Several, in fact: first, the successful bidder was Chevron, a US company openly and publicly backed and lobbied for by the current US Ambassador to Bulgaria[5A, 5B]. Europe belatedly agreed some years ago that it was over-reliant on Russian gas; shivering Bulgarians certainly agreed, two winters ago. There are many grandiose (and delayed) energy projects that are planned to (ultimately – yawn!) resolve this unsatisfactory, almost-monopolistic position. So, Bulgaria swiflty shifts its dependence, from Russia to the USA! Out of the frying pan into the fire, as we say.

The cost of the concession? Well, the local media were truly a-buzz with the news that Chevron tendered EUR 30M over a 5-year period for the concession, which was offered – by the state of Bulgaria – at a minimum price of EUR 200,000, or the purchase cost of a luxury apartment in the centre of Sofia. Even I, as a private householder, could have mustered a bid above that minimum amount![6] (Compare the minimum official offer with those for the behemoth Kremikovtzi steel plant.)

The successful bidder estimated that the deposit near Novi Pazar contains between 300 billion and 1 trillion cubic metres of shale gas. It’s not clear, from what the Bulgarian Minister of Economy apparently said some days before the Chevron announcement, how much this particular concession will contribute to the total (it’s just the way it’s reported!) But the Minister was cited as saying that Bulgaria’s total shale gas deposits should be able to guarantee domestic consumption for the next 1,000 years.[7] No need to worry, then!

So far, (and, let’s be fair, this is even before the prospecting stage), I have failed to discover any indicators as to the eventual consumer cost of this miraculous new source of energy for a millenium. But, in a few years’ time, we may be grateful for available energy at any cost – not only in Bulgaria.

But, in the light of the opening statements of this item, what really concerns me – in the immediate- and short-term, is that Bulgaria, unlike the UK, sits on a highly volatile seismological region. Given the apparent levels of contemporary Bulgarian “regulation” of all kinds, I am dubious that the managers of shale gas concessions here will need to be alarmed by something as minor as a 2.3 Richter scale tremor, causing them to cease operations as a precaution to themselves and the public.

Shake, rattle and roll

“Bulgaria has a high seismic activity – 97 percent of its territory is threatened by seismic effects. Seismically active areas are: Krupnik, Blagoevgrad, Sofia, Mariska area Shabla Area, the region of Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa. Only in the first 30 years of the twentieth century in Bulgaria 11 earthquakes occurred with a magnitude of over 6 (on the Richter scale)” Source: the Safequake European Project[8].

The worst, at 7.0 Richter, was in the central, Plovidv, region in 1928 (C20. only). This century, there have been at least a dozen quakes, ranging from 3.1 to 5.5 (Richter). We know, we felt some of them!

And the UK company suspends all activity on experiencing 2.3 in its operational region?

Bulgaria: seismic activity 1990-present

High stakes, no expectation

Bulgaria, as is true of the rest of Europe (I liked writing that!), is hugely energy-dependent, both on its own produced resources and from imports. This week, Germany does a complete volte-face on its domestic energy future, mirrored by Bulgaria doing new (cheap) deals with its own assets, and still fighting with Russia over a 40-plus year-old nuclear project (Belene, or, as I prefer, Belenosaurus), without proper regard for today’s value of those assets (kock-down Chevron concession) or proper regard for its safe viability (no public information), or for an outmoded and hugely discredited atomic source (Belene). We hapless citizens (or residents) get angry or (probably) shrug our shoulders and vow to vote for yet another political party next time – if we are still around, of course!

And, finally…

We can surely be comforted by the words of the UK company spokesman for Chevron: “ The perfecting of the technology for extraction from horizontal layers in the USA and Canada has allowed extraction in North America.” (Was he correctly quoted, I wonder, in the wrong country, or just stating the bleedin’ obvious?)

The BBC report on Cuadrilla quotes the British Geological Society (BGS) web site, that contains a chilling statement: “Any process that injects pressurised water into rocks at depth will cause the rock to fracture and possibly produce earthquakes.”

That’s all we need, folks – more earthquakes!

Source [1]: BBC Online

 

Source [1A]: Independent

Source [2]: Financial Times

Source [3]: earthquakes,bgs.uk

Source [4]: Ditto (different page)

Source [5]: SNA (link A)
Source [5]: SNA (link B) 

Source [6]: SNA

Source [7]: As above

Source [8]: Safequake

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