The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is a big fan of shale gas. So much so that he told the Times today:
“… if reserves of shale can be exploited in London we should leave no stone unturned, or unfracked, in the cause of keeping the lights on”.
Putting a drilling rig in the middle of one of the world’s most densely populated cities may sound like an outlandish scheme – even for the notoriously eccentric Mayor. But could it work?
Dr Nick Riley, Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Survey, told us that actually there’s no technical reason why it couldn’t happen.
Yes, Londoners – with the right geology, technology, and a bit of public acceptance, there could be a frack pad coming to a housing estate near you.
Is there any London shale gas?
First, the regrettable but necessary reality check. It’s unclear whether or not there is the geology to host a glut of shale gas under London.
A recent British Geological Survey report focused on the north of England, with southern shale reserves expected to be minimal.
Nonetheless, a little-known and fairly anonymous company called Northdown Energy Limited has licenses to explore around the Croydon area. It’s the only company to hold such licenses within the M25. While they were granted for conventional oil and gas exploration, current regulations mean these can be used for shale gas – if there’s any there.
Maybe the Mayor’s office knows something we and the British Geological Survey don’t?
Can you drill in cities?
Simply put, yes, it’s possible to drill in urban areas. In fact, a number of companies already drill for conventional fuels around some of the UK’s largest cities.
One of the UK’s leading onshore oil and gas explorers, iGas, drills for gas on the outskirts of Liverpool – it expects to get around 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas from its Four Oaks well alone. It’s not the only one: Rathlin Energy has a number of wells dotted around Hull and Alkane Energy has ten gas projects operating around Nottingham.
If an area is too densely populated to fit a vertical drill, companies can always go in sideways, raising the tantalising prospect of under-house drilling.
New horizontal drilling technology allows access to resources up to 10 kilometers away, Riley tells us. But it’s much more expensive than vertical drilling, and any exploration well would probably need to be vertical. It’s not worth wasting the money on an expensive sideways drill to find there’s nothing to extract.
But nevertheless, there’s no technical reason why a frack pad couldn’t be plonked in the middle of your leafy housing estate.
What about environmental impacts?
This is where there are potentially some snags.
Fracking can be noisy, dusty and bright – lights need to illuminate the rigs around the clock for safety reasons. The drilling process has caused some minor earthquakes in the past – although no more so than other underground operations like mining. There also need to be a lot of roads for lorries to transport equipment to and from the drilling site. But presumably in the middle of a city that’s already taken care of.
The UK currently has strict regulations on each of these factors, cutting across a number of agencies, Riley tells us. If a project did receive planning permission, the criteria for each of these would have to be met – though in densely populated areas it’s probably going to be harder.