The gas story shows rather more promise, although we need more data before the true potential is understood. The BGS’s central estimate for total gas within the upper Bowland Shale, the most prospective unit, is 260 trillion cubic feet (tcf). If gas recovery rates are closer to 15%, as early US data suggest , the 39 tcf equates to 13 years of UK gas consumption – a more worthy prize.
However, recovery of these volumes of gas rests on the very unlikely assumptions that all areas of the Bowland are as equally gas-rich and easily accessible for drilling. And it would require a huge escalation of onshore drilling. Production data over the past decade from the Barnett Shale in Texas suggests that an average of 1 billion cubic feet is produced from each well. Production of the full 39 tcf would thus require around 30,000 wells, unless average recovery rates can be improved. The industry’s ability to drill up to ten wells from a single site means that 3,000 sites would need to be scattered around the north of England. In comparison, the UK has drilled around 20 onshore oil and gas wells per year over the last century.
Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK government has stated that it is determined to “go all out for shale”, with a package including tax incentives, changes to the trespass laws and financial benefits for local communities. But the required level of drilling can only occur if the legitimate worries of local communities are met. This will require strong and effective government regulation, together with an open and meaningful dialogue between industry and the communities in which it hopes to operate.