9 November 2011, 10:47

Shale gas fields in EU: myths and reality

Shale gas fields in EU: myths and reality

Some are saying there has been a so-called “shale revolution”. However this is not entirely true. To begin with we should first take a look at what shale gas is and where it comes from. There is a sediment worldwide, called a shale, which contains large amounts of organic material necessary for forming oil and gas.

Some are saying there has been a so-called “shale revolution”. However this is not entirely true. To begin with we should first take a look at what shale gas is and where it comes from. There is a sediment worldwide, called a shale, which contains large amounts of organic material necessary for forming oil and gas. Shale gas is one of a number of unconventional sources of natural gas, which typically consists of coal bed methane. The main problem is that shale ordinarily has insufficient permeability to allow significant fluid flow to bore a well. Not to mention that more shale gas fields have yet to be discovered.

It is hardly possible to speak of the shale revolution given that shale gas has been produced since 1821, when the first shale gas well was drilled by William Hart in the New York State. Horizontal drilling is often used with shale gas wells, which helps create maximum borehole surface area in contact with the shale. The first such well was drilled in the United States in 2002 and its being maintained remains an issue. Specialists point to the durability of vertical wells as opposed to horizontal ones, a topic that is yet to be meticulously studied.

By the end of 2009, the United States had extracted 51 billion cubic meters of shale gas,  a rather ridiculous figure, which  barely amounts to 8 percent of shale gas production by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Western media was quick to trumpet the success, though, and the world energy behemoths acquired about 21 billion dollars worth of assets pertaining to shale gas extraction.

The situation changed drastically when a stock market bubble burst as a result of US oil and gas companies’ artificially lowering the prime rates for shale gas, which they hoped would increase their stock indexes. Finally admitting the machinations, the US Energy Department announced the revision of shale gas production indices.

Is it possible to export this dubious shale gas revolution to Europe or is it safe to assume that shale gas extraction is an endemic animal living on American continent only?

Even if one proceeds from the suggestion that Europe’s shale gas resources are abundant, a string of problems pertaining to these fields’ development is yet to be resolved.

The number one problem is horizontal drilling, which requires using extensive unpopulated territory which does not exist in Europe.

The second problem is the expense of shale gas extraction, which calls for hefty sums to be allocated for the development of new wells and the usage of huge water reservoirs and vast unsettled territories. Certainly this is not an economical Europeans’ idea of what reliable gas supplies are.

Problem number three is related to the fact that shale gas fields are typically located many miles away from existing infrastructure facilities. With gas pipelines still scanty across Europe, developing shale gas fields on a comprehensive and long-term basis certainly makes no sense. 

Last but not least is the environmental impact of shale gas mining, including water pollution caused by what is known as hydraulic fracturing. The trouble is that huge fractures, instigated by this process, can cause toxic fracturing fluid to penetrate shallow freshwater zones and contaminate, something that has already provoked a string of scandals in the United States. Environmentalists are still bristling at safety violations associated with hydraulic fracturing committed by major US companies.  

In densely populated Europe, hydraulic fractures can be fraught with the danger of causing an ecological catastrophe. Such a danger prompted France to announce a ban on shale gas extraction in July. Other EU countries are currently mulling using horizontal drilling.

A lot of the shale-related hysteria comes amid skeptical forecasts regarding forthcoming natural gas deficits, This is something that has been repeated by experts from Wood Mackenzie, one of the world’s leading energy consultancy and research groups.

In Moscow, energy expert Igor Tomberg slams Wood Mackenzie’s attempts to promote shale gas projects, which he says are nothing but attempts at deliberate profiteering. “Small doubt, all this shale gas hoop-la  is being artificially fanned by Wood Mackenzie, but actually, nothing is behind it,” he says.

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