On Friday, I was privileged to visit the British Geological Survey, at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire. My main interests were to get a clear understanding of the potential for shale gas in the UK, and also to understand better the availability of suitable UK sites for long-term geological storage of nuclear waste.
On shale gas, the answer seems to be that we simply don’t yet know the scale of commercially exploitable shale gas, though it may be considerable. So it is wrong to regard shale gas as Britain’s get-out-of-jail card to solve our energy crisis. But it is also wrong for Ed Davey to talk down the potential of shale gas, because like everyone else, he just doesn’t know. It would be doubly wrong to ignore the potential and fail to investigate it thoroughly.
I was reassured to learn that while BGS recognises both the real risks and the public concerns about the safety of shale gas extraction, they believe that these risks are manageable and comparable to other energy technologies. I was shocked to read alarmist newspaper reports speaking of “earthquakes” in the North West associated with shale gas drilling. What we saw in fact was two minor earth tremors comparable to natural background seismic activity, or to the minor tremors associated with coal mining.
On nuclear waste, BGS seems confident that there are a number of sites which would be suitable for safe long-term geological storage of nuclear waste. The problem, of course, is public anxiety over anything associated with the word “nuclear”. We need to emphasise that these sites are safe; that they can have a relatively modest and non-intrusive surface footprint — certainly no worse than other industrial developments; and that such a site can bring in money, jobs and infrastructure. The income for the local authority from such an operation can help reduce local taxes for local residents over many decades. But telling that story is a job for politicians, not the BGS.
Perhaps the most exciting thing I learned on my visit was about neither of these subjects, but about a novel source of natural gas, or methane. I’d recently heard the term “methane hydrates”, but I knew precious little about it. Hydrates have been known of for 200 years, but they first came to attention as a problem in the pipeline transmission of natural gas, where pipes can be blocked by solid methane hydrate which can form in the pipes under certain conditions. The first sourcing of methane from hydrates first occurred almost accidentally during drilling for natural gas in the Russian Arctic in the 1970s.
Methane hydrate is a chemical structure in which methane molecules became trapped in water crystals. A great deal of methane can be contained in this way. A cubic volume of methane hydrate can yield 150 times the volume of methane gas at normal temperature and pressure.
It has now become clear that methane hydrate is very common not only in perma-frost, as in the Russian Arctic, but under the sea-bed at depths of around 500 feet — so around the edges of the continental shelf. The map above shows known or inferred deposit sites. Sadly few are close to the UK (our continental shelf is too wide), but methane hydrate is widely distributed around the world. And here’s the killer — it’s estimated that there’s as much carbon sequestered in methane hydrates as in all the world’s known reserves of fossil fuels combined.
The Greens of course are in a panic, because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and they fear accidental leakage of methane to the atmosphere. The answer is: get over it. All energy extraction technologies involve some risk. Our challenge is to manage the risk, not to eschew the technology. If the Greens were to stop and think (as they so rarely do) they could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal capacity with methane/gas capacity.
Japan, India, USA, Canada, Norway and Russia are active in developing this technology. Given British expertise in off-shore drilling, we shouldn’t ignore it.
We keep hearing about “Peak Oil”, after which fossil fuels run out. All I can say is, don’t hold your breath. As prices rise, novel sources become commercial. Tar-sand oil is coming on-stream. America is sitting on centuries-worth of shale gas. And now it seems that unimaginable quantities of natural gas may become available from methane hydrates. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And fossil fuel shortages are driving new thinking, and new solutions.