Analysis

Shale gas: a vital stepping stone towards decarbonisation?

Ian Gardner, global energy leader, Arup
http://video.arup.com/?v=1_96hasuyt

In June 2013, Cuadrilla appointed Arup to provide independent Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) as part of planning applications to explore for natural gas from shale in Lancashire. Arup global energy leader Ian Gardner and Des Correia, project director explain why the firm is taking on this project.

This could be seen as a controversial project. So why do we want to do it?

At Arup we’re committed to low-carbon energy. We want a fossil fuel-free world. However, the reality is that all of us still depend on fossil fuels like oil and coal – they account for 80% of energy being consumed on Earth today. The world cannot give up fossil fuels overnight, however, it can wean itself onto ones that are cleaner, such as gas, while it develops low-carbon alternatives. We think that this is a vital step and it’s one we want to help society take.

The UK has already replaced a lot of oil and coal with natural gas. It now relies heavily on gas for generating power as well as for domestic central heating and hot water. In fact, the average UK home uses about three times as much power in the form of gas as it does in electricity. Of course, nuclear and renewables (both onshore and offshore), as well as demand reduction, have roles to play. But for the foreseeable future, the country needs gas. With North Sea gas running out, this leaves a choice: buy gas from abroad or find new domestic sources.

"A lot of our work has involved engaging with the community. We’ve developed online tools to capture responses. We’ve shown people that they are being listened to, and that designs have been modified in response to their concerns. This is key."

Relying solely on imports carries geopolitical risks, whereas shale gas offers the UK the chance to produce its own. And surely, since we in the UK all use energy, we should be willing to take responsibility for both cause and effect, sourcing it rather than making it someone else’s problem.

All this points to shale gas. It’s known to be cost-effective, without big investment risk. It can use the existing gas distribution network. And it promises to bring economic benefits. The government has estimated that UK shale gas production could attract annual investment of £3.7bn between 2016 and 2032 and support around 60,000 jobs in the industry.

The fear is that these benefits may come at too high a price in terms of the environmental impact. Our work with Cuadrilla is helping to give a balanced picture of the risks and benefits for the first time in the UK.

Our client was keen that, as the first of its kind, the EIA should be as thorough as possible. This has seen specialists from 25 separate disciplines within Arup making over 100 site visits. They have contributed to a consultation process giving local people the chance to have their concerns addressed and for the local council to make an informed decision.

The Lancashire EIA is extremely wide-ranging and includes areas such as transport, noise, induced seismicity, water contamination, ecology and air emissions. People’s concerns in these areas are understandable as they come from reading stories in the media and seeing images of sprawling shale gas developments in the US - making it hard for them to determine what the real facts are concerning development in the UK.

So a lot of our work has involved engaging with the community. We’ve developed online tools to capture responses. We’ve shown people that they are being listened to, and that designs have been modified in response to their concerns. This is key; the industry is going to have to continue to interact with people to help give them the information they want.

"We’ve put down a comprehensive set of documentation that sets out for the first time what a multi-well exploration pad with lateral drilling would look like and what the consequences would be for the environment. This isn’t to say that the job is done – far from it."

In Lancashire, we’ve shown how transport routes have been selected to be safe, minimise impact on homes and avoid schools. We’ve developed a deep understanding of hydrogeology in the area and found that the risks of contamination to surface and groundwater are low.

We’ve also looked at the potential impact of induced seismicity from hydraulic fracturing. Cuadrilla is establishing an extensive seismic monitoring network and if a tremor of more than magnitude 0.5 occurs, work stops while it’s discussed with the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

To consider the noise impact, we’ve created a 3D noise map that takes into account typography and buildings. This shows that different activities – including creating the well pad, drilling, fracking, decommissioning once complete, and off-site road traffic – will not create significant noise.

We’ve put down a comprehensive set of documentation that sets out for the first time what a multi-well exploration pad with lateral drilling would look like and what the consequences would be for the environment. This isn’t to say that the job is done – far from it.

We believe the industry must play particularly close attention to geology, hydrogeology and long term well integrity. There is also considerable scope for innovation in areas such as extraction, waste management, water use and air emissions, monitoring and site development and transport logistics. And it needs to find a way of streamlining the thorough and exhaustive planning, permitting and approval process while gaining and maintaining the public’s trust.

At Arup, we want to be involved in this sector. We want to help everyone involved understand the facts about impacts and benefits. We want to provide a clear picture so that people can make informed judgements about the balance between social and economic gains in areas such as jobs and energy security versus impacts such as noise or increased road traffic volumes. Most importantly, we want to set a high bar on expectations and standards for shale gas extraction in the UK and further afield for that matter.

If we can make a positive contribution, we can help transition toward a lower carbon economy for the future and take a small step toward a world without fossil fuels at all.

  • Read the EIA for the Preston New Road site in Lancashire here:
  •  More on fracking from Infrastructure Intelligence: 

http://www.infrastructure-intelligence.com/article/aug-2014/fear-fracktor-uk-deserves-informed-debate-fracking

http://www.infrastructure-intelligence.com/article/jan-2014/fracking-uk-needs-drill-more-holes