Huge reserves of shale gas could transform energy supplies in the west—and cut carbon emissionsby Derek Brower / March 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
It’s a blast: sand, water and chemicals are forced into horizontally-drilled wells in shale rock, releasing gas as a result. The process is known as fracking
Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats have spent the past five years trying to figure out how to wean the continent off its reliance on natural gas from Russia. Costly new pipeline projects and efforts to promote a rapid rise in renewable energy were two responses. What no one in Brussels seems to have realised, however, was that a small firm of wildcat drillers in Texas had found a solution: releasing natural gas trapped in shale rock through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
Hydraulic fracturing, called “fracking,” involves blasting a mix of water and some chemicals into the earth to smash open the shale and release the gas. Horizontal drilling—turning the drill sideways and allowing it to travel horizontally for several kilometres underground—has helped make fracking possible across large tracts of shale. The combination of these techniques is set to transform North America’s energy sector. In Europe, vast reserves of shale gas could reduce our reliance on companies such as Gazprom, while China, the middle east, Africa and Russia also have huge potential reserves. And as natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels there is potential for reducing carbon emissions.
The large-scale use of these technologies was pioneered by a company called Mitchell Energy in the Barnett shale, a huge geological structure in Texas. Mitchell had been trying to prove the technology since the 1990s. It came good when soaring natural gas prices suddenly made the techniques profitable. Now the method is cheaper than traditional drilling for gas, and the Barnett shale alone meets 7 per cent of US natural gas demand. A host of new projects in North America, from Louisiana to British Columbia, are under development and all of the big oil companies want in. In December, ExxonMobil spent $41bn (£27bn) buying one specialist shale-gas developer.
The notion that US natural gas production had peaked and was in decline—a mainstay of energy planners just a few years ago—has been turned on its head. Last summer, the authoritative Potential Gas Committee of the Colorado School of Mines, said “unconventional” reserves now offered the US 100 years of natural gas supply. Many analysts expect that figure to grow, if it hasn’t already. And as the output from these fields has ramped up, natural gas prices…