Fracking in the UK could unlock 4 trillion pounds of gas, reduce energy bills and create jobs, says Matt Ridley

A mile below northern England, in the Bowland shale, there is about a thousand trillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

Realistically, with today’s technology of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, we could extract about 10 percent of it if we wanted to. At today’s prices, he would earn a whopping 4 trillion pounds.

Shale gas production would lower energy bills, create jobs, generate tax revenues, shift imports, greatly enrich the north of England and slightly impoverish Vladimir Putin, to name a few of the benefits.

Shale is the source rock of natural gas, but for decades no one has been able to drain it except where it has infiltrated porous sandstones.

Then, in Texas in the 1990s, a new technique was tried that used water instead of gel to create millimeter-wide cracks in deep underground shale. Combined with mile-long horizontal perforations, this has led to a number of discoveries.

Matt Ridley: ‘Realistically, with today’s technology of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, we could extract about 10% of it if we wanted to. At today’s prices, he would earn £ 4 trillion.

Earlier this year, George Yates, a Texan entrepreneur interested in some potential drilling rights in the north of England, gave me some numbers to illustrate how special the opportunity is for the UK and why he is investing. The Barnett shale near Fort Worth, Texas, where the story began, has 150 billion cubic feet of gas per square mile of land.

The Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is twice as rich with $ 300 billion. But Britain’s Bowland shale is again more than twice as rich, at $ 650 billion.

Incidentally, despite the claims of some of my critics, I have no personal interest to declare in this debate. I used to make money from coal, gas’s main rival, but there is no gas-rich shale under my land.

Despite this incredible opportunity for the UK, just a few months ago the government was about to order oil and gas exploration company Cuadrilla to pour concrete into the two wells they had drilled in the Bowland shale near Blackpool.

Were we crazy? Yes. Have we come to our senses? We hope.

Yesterday, the new Secretary of Business and Energy, Jacob Rees-Mogg, announced in parliament that the ban on fracking has now been lifted to help speed up the UK’s domestic energy supply.

New Secretary of Business and Energy, Jacob Rees-Mogg, (pictured) announced yesterday in parliament that the fracking ban has now been lifted to help speed up the UK's domestic energy supply.

New Secretary of Business and Energy, Jacob Rees-Mogg, (pictured) announced yesterday in parliament that the fracking ban has now been lifted to help speed up the UK’s domestic energy supply.

Claiming to “set a new ambition for our country”, Liz Truss pledged earlier this month to “make sure the UK is a net exporter of energy by 2040”.

Not only is this ambition entirely achievable, it is also a green fantasy that we may soon be doing without gas, which provides half of our electricity, most of our heating and many of our industrial needs, and will do so for several decades.

We went from exporting to importing gas, while America went the other way, thanks to shale. In terms of emissions, this doesn’t make sense. We treat imported gas as if it has a “zero carbon footprint” until it is burned, which is a lie: transporting it in tanks generates a lot of emissions.

Producing gas at home is even more valuable than producing oil at home. Oil is cheap to transport, so there is a global price. There is no global gas price. Gas costs a fortune to liquefy and transport across oceans, which is why the price of gas has been at least four times higher here than in America this year.

When I first visited Pennsylvania in 2011 to see what all the shale gas hype was all about, experts told me it was a flash in the pan. It won’t last, and it’s the last gasp of a dying industry, they insisted: gas is running out.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The innovations that enabled shale gas production transformed America, made it energy self-sufficient, revitalized many industries, and changed geopolitics. It demolished the then-dominant “peak gas” myth that the world would soon be exhausted.

Matt Ridley: 'Half of the people who protested at community meetings in Yorkshire and Lancashire were southerly middle-class elegant weather types.  At a picket they warmed themselves on charcoal braziers, apparently oblivious to the irony '

Matt Ridley: ‘Half of the people who protested at community meetings in Yorkshire and Lancashire were southerly middle-class elegant weather types. At a picket they warmed themselves on charcoal braziers, apparently oblivious to the irony ‘

Back here, some experts try to insist that Britain is not the same as America and that fracking is not going to work for us. Geologist Chris Cornelius said this week that he thinks British regulations are too strict and his geology might be too complicated for any significant gas extraction.

But that’s what some also said about Pennsylvania 15 years ago.

On the other hand, the risk is taken by the companies that do the work: this is what private business means. If that doesn’t work, investors will soon pull the plug, at no cost to the taxpayer.

As for the common argument that Britain is too densely populated for gas extraction, some of America’s shale gas is also produced in densely populated areas.

A drilling rig I visited in Colorado was right next to a housing estate. Concerned residents asked to be notified when construction would begin, then called to say, “Why was the start delayed because we didn’t hear and hear nothing?” The answer came: ‘We left on time, didn’t you notice?’

Under pressure from green fanatics, the British government has imposed too severe limits on the vibrations (or “earthquakes” as the BBC likes to call them) from fracking operations. Those limits, if applied to almost all other industries, including quarries, transportation, and the military, would have stopped them.

The tremors coming from a mile underground that stopped drilling near Blackpool were equivalent to someone sitting hard in a chair in the same room. Yet, until last year, ministers bragged about stopping the shale gas industry with this nonsense.

Mr. Rees-Mogg this week pledged to revise the current limit of 0.5 on the Richter scale, calling it “too low”.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, says shale gas extraction should only go ahead if it has local support. We don’t really know what locals think because opposition to shale gas in Britain was largely from outsiders and was both highly emotional and highly inaccurate. Friends of the Earth was snatched by the Advertising Standards Authority for fraud.

In North Yorkshire, local farmer Lorraine Allanson was treated with terrifying threats for saying she would welcome shale gas. In her book My Story, she tells of “shouting, abuse, public defecation, intimidation, hijacking of trucks to stop deliveries, blocking the village road”.

Prime Minister Liz Truss says shale gas extraction should only go ahead if it has local support

Prime Minister Liz Truss says shale gas extraction should only go ahead if it has local support

Now he argues that “the locals should decide and not the wealthy green NGOs and their minions. We need a public relations campaign that informs the public about UK regulations and puts an end to endless ludicrous propaganda about water, tremors and the cancer’.

Half of the people protesting at community meetings in Yorkshire and Lancashire were southern middle-class elegant climate types. At a picket they warmed themselves on charcoal braziers, apparently oblivious to the irony.

Elsewhere, they protested unsightly concrete blocks at drilling sites, never mind the fact that wind farms use far more concrete per unit of generated power and are far more intrusive. The Greens have also complained about the tiny amounts of chemicals in the water being injected into rocks a mile below the surface, forgetting that those rocks are by definition already soaked in toxic hydrocarbons.

These protesters have uncomfortable traveling companions. One individual who has opposed shale gas from the start is Vladimir Putin. “The black stuff comes out of the tap” when you go near people’s houses, he lied in 2013.

Alexander Medvedev, general manager of gas giant Gazprom Export, said Russia is “ready to fight shale”. While Russia Today, a supporter of the Kremlin, called shale gas executives “the moral equivalent of pedophiles”. The Russians, on the other hand, want the West to buy their gas.

How fast could shale gas make a difference in Britain? Much will depend on how quickly planners and when they make decisions.

Currently they approach each new drill well separately as a different application, which takes time and increases costs.

But Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, says “if planning didn’t take three years for each fracture job, the gas could be produced within a couple of months of moving the equipment on site.” One could certainly see an effect, albeit a small one at the beginning, before the next election.

  • Matt Ridley is a former conservative peer and author of How Innovation Works.
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