08:07 Monday 19th August 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire:
RONNIE BARBOUR: Could South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdon play a role in helping to bring down Britain’s energy prices? It’s a question being asked by some experts and investors here who are eyeing a potential new source of energy, and a new source of profits. But one technique to drill for shale gas known as fracking is controversial.Waseem Mirza reports. (TAPE)
WAZEEM MIRZA: (NOISE) That is the sound of the controversial method of extracting untapped underground gas deposits known as fracking. It’s got a shaky start in the UK, but with the Government now firmly backing plans for fracking, a spot of land somewhere here in the South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire areas could be among the 14 areas in the UK being awarded drilling licences for underground gas. In 2010 it was claimed the extraction of shale gas in America had resulted in gas leaking into local water supplies, with explosive results. A domestic tap is opened, and the water ignites into a flame. Geologists say this couldn’t happen over here, but then this happened. (BBC NEWS MUSIC).
ANNOUNCER: Controversial drilling operation for natural shale gas has been suspended after a small earthquake near Blackpool.
WASEEM MIRZA: Operations in Blackpool were then stopped, and there’s been no fracking in the UK since. But unrelated seismic activity of this size is fairly common, and in 2012 a report into the local geology recommended “cautious continuation of hydraulic fracture operations”. Last week David Cameron urged Britain to embrace fracking, and its economic benefits. Some in Cambridgeshire’s high-tec business community are eyeing the benefits too. Justin Hayward is Director of CIR Strategy. (Cambridge Investment Research).
JUSTIN HAYWARD: The limits of this particular sector or business opportunity will be political. There appear nationally of these to be quite large reserves there. We don’t know how much local reserve there will be in shale gas, but I think it may be foolish not to try and find out.
WASEEM MIRZA: But there is still disagreement over the benefits of this untapped gas. (OB)
REPORTER: Dr Aled Jones, thanks very much for having me today. We’re just outside the Coslett Building here at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Lead the way.
ALED JONES: We’re in the Global Sustainability Institute on the ground floor here. Fracking is not going to solve our energy security. It may make some more money for our private sector, but they will be selling onto an open market. So if the Government does really want to keep our energy costs down from gas point of view, they would have to curtail the profits and the exploration costs of those companies. Or you’d have to see a European-wide fracking boom to really bring gas prices down. We’re not seeing that certainly with France banning it and other countries banning even the exploration. Droughts are quite common, and becoming increasingly common, so the pressure they’re going to put on already existing stress areas will be huge, so is something else we need to tackle.
WASEEM MIRZA: But what do people in the South Cambridgeshire village of Harston think? (VOXPOP)
PUBLIC ONE: If you look at where these sites are, the infrastructure, the roads just aren’t there. These are country tracks.
PUBLIC TWO: I really think we should go for it, absolutely. (Someone else says “yes”)
WASEEM MIRZA: Despite some concerns from environmentalists, no-one can say with any real certainty how much gas could lie trapped beneath South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. But one thing is certain. The successful award of a drilling licence for these areas through the Government’s fourteenth licence round next year will help provide the definitive answer. (STUDIO)
RONNIE BARBOUR: Waseem Mirza reporting. On the line now is Professor Peter Styles from Keele University and Editor-in-Chief of Geoscientist. Peter good morning to you.
PETER STYLES: Hello. How are you?
RONNIE BARBOUR: I’m good thank you. South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire have been included in this Government consultation in the next few months for the next round of drilling licences. Is drilling the only definitive way to find out if there’s any source of energy down below then Peter?
PETER STYLES: Well it’s the only way to prove it finally, but there are other ways to actually find out at least a fair amount about what’s beneath the earth. It’s called seismic reflection. We actually use vibrations travelling down into the ground to look at the geology. The trouble with South Cambridgeshire and this region is sediments are relatively thin compared to the other areas that have been suggested, partly because there’s a large block which runs across the Channel into France and belgium, where the basement rocks, the skeleton of the UK, comes relatively close to the surface. And so the sediments are much thinner than let’s say the Weald, where we have very great thicknesses, and Lancashire, where we also have very great thicknesses. Now that’s known, but not mapped very well. But it could be, but it wouldn’t be my first choice, if you know what I mean.
RONNIE BARBOUR: That’s the issue, because you could actually do all the drilling and not get anywhere. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is just one of the ways that gas can be extracted in this country. It brings its own problems, even just in the extraction process.
PETER STYLES: Well I was the person who actually wrote the report for Govenment on the earthquakes in Lancashire. And to be fair I’m on an international commission looking at hydrocarbon related earthquakes. And I’m afraid they laughed at me a little bit when I told them that we got really very excited about a magnitude two and a bit earthquake. But that’s not to minimise that that was felt. But we have to look back a little bit, and we actually found out that there’d been at least two hundred fracks of various kinds, not all shale gas related in the UK. Some are for geothermal energy, some of them for what’s called coalbed methane. And some of them simply for water in the UK. And Germany, and no-one seems yo have actually noticed this, have carried out about two hundred and fifty fracks in the Northern part for oil and gas in Saxony. So it’s not quite as unusual in Europe as it might have been suspected.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Well Sally just texted us, why is it other countries they’re not doing it we are but they are actually doing it. (sic) I mean America.
PETER STYLES: Have done it.
RONNIE BARBOUR: In America there’s a big debate in America isn’t there? And some of the kind of consequences of fracking.
PETER STYLES: Many of them have been kind of exaggerated. The inflammable water in Pennsylvania.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Yes.
PETER STYLES: That’s .. you could do that in the 1930s, long before fracking existed. Because the water wells there pass through (UNCLEAR) which contain methane. So I’m afraid despite it being very good television, it’s actually not very good geology to suspect that that was fracking. So fracking has to be done quickly, and that’s what we did with our Government report. We laid down guidelines as to how this could be done, that you must be certain distances away from water supplies, and that we have to monitor seismically very very carefully when it was done.
RONNIE BARBOUR: David Cameron last week called for the country to get behind fracking for the good of the nation. Should the people of Cambridgeshire get behind fracking?
PETER STYLES: I don’t suspect they will have to in the very very near future to be honest with you. I think geologically even from what we know, I suspect the prospects are not very good. The rocks which they’re extracting fuel from are very widespread in the UK. To be honest they’re found more or less everywhere on a line kind of South of Manchester. But that doesn’t mean that they’re either thick enough or have been cooked to the right temperature. That’s the other thing people don’t realise. It’s not just a question of what rocks they are, but they have to be heated to the right temperature, so that they make gas or oil. But if it’s too cold that doesn’t happen. And if it’s too hot, that becomes destroyed. So the conditions to actually get that gas in a particular place are actually quite complicated.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Peter, we’ll leave it there.