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Yes, it’s true. The news that Britain is practically floating on shale gas has indeed set-off a massive eruption – of irony.

The gung-ho, eco-sceptic, pro-development lobby thinks that shale gas will save us all. Perhaps not from climate change, but in a recession who cares? (Actually, they didn’t much care before the recession either, but we’ll let that pass).

For instance, the Institute of Directors has a new report out claiming that a British shale gas industry could create 35,000 jobs. Here is Allister Heath’s take on the matter in the impeccable pro-development City AM:

  • “Two years ago, experts put these at 5.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf) but it now seems that the British Geological Survey will significantly increase this estimate, possibly to as much as 200 tcf. Exploration companies themselves claim to have identified resources of nearly 300 tcf so far. Offshore reserves, which are much harder to extract profitably, could be as much as 5-10 times larger. Whatever the actual numbers turn out to be, Britain is sitting on plentiful untapped reserves.”

So why aren’t we already cashing in? Mr Heath is certainly impatient for us to do so:

  • “Britain is missing a trick. We are sitting on a massive amount of untapped energy, in the form of shale gas trapped deep in sedimentary rocks, and yet are failing to make use of this semi-secret treasure trove.”

However, it’s important we don’t get confused here. For reasons of style, journalists tend use the words ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ interchangeably. However, to a geologist these are technical terms with very distinct meanings. Basically, resources don’t become reserves until we have proof that they’re economically recoverable.

The ‘fracking’ techniques that allowed shale gas to be profitably extracted in the US could, with appropriate safeguards, be applied in the UK. However, the yield from British formations still needs to be sufficient to repay the considerable investment involved in a major fracking operation. And that, so far, is uncertain.

The reason why we’re not already swimming in shale gas is not because “Britain is missing a trick” but because the exploration companies are busy drilling test wells – with the emphasis on the ‘test’. For the moment, we’ll just have to suck it and see.

Meanwhile the battle between the pro- and anti-fracking lobbies is gearing up (see, for instance, Ben Caldicott’s article for the Independent), but it could be that they’re fighting over nothing. And that’s not the end of the irony.

The real world impact of the shale gas revolution has been to out-compete coal-fired power generation, contributing to the lowest level of US carbon emissions in twenty years. As for the level of renewable power that the environmentalists want to see, that won’t happen unless we can keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. There’s only one technology that can affordably provide such a back-up and that’s gas-fired power which, for both technical and economic reasons, is hugely more flexible in its output than coal or nuclear.

So, while the environmentalists fear that natural gas will displace ‘green’ energy and the eco-sceptics hope that it will, they’re both wrong.

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