Fracking Nightmare: Destroying Our Countryside


  • New UK government energy strategy
  • Increases reliance on natural gas
  • Assumption that fracking can fill gap
  • Minor onshore oil and gas in UK to date
  • Fracking requires huge amount of drilling
  • 54,000 wells to supply 40 power stations
  • Would cover 7,000 sq miles (size of Wales)
  • 36,000 wells to offset North Sea decline
  • Would cover an additional 4,700 sq miles
  • Massive impacts give population density

The proposed new UK government energy strategy calls for a massive increase in reliance on gas for electricity generation. We have shown in a previous article (see Fracking Desperate: The Dash For Unconventional Gas) that with North Sea production plummeting and imports stalled, the government can only be assuming that these power stations will be supplied with fracked gas. The question of whether this is at all realistic we have left for another article (see Fracking Scam: Boom and Bust). Here we deal with the question of what the scale and impact of such developments would be if they were technically and economically feasible. Unconventional gas is part of a trend of more extreme energy extraction methods which are being pushed as more easily extracted fossil fuels deplete. No one should be under any illusions that the impacts of unconventional gas will be remotely similar to those felt from the previous extraction of conventional North Sea gas. Unconventional gas extraction involves much more intense processes, which are much more dangerous and destructive while producing a much smaller amounts of gas.

Quarterly Time-lapse Of Permits Issued For The 2000 Shale Gas Wells Drilled Over 4 Years Between 2008 and 2012 In Bradford County, Pennsylvania

The fundamental difference with unconventional gas is that the rock the gas is trapped in is impermeable, and so the gas cannot easily flow through it. While this usually means hydraulic fracturing is necessary, another major consequence is that wells need to be drilled wherever the gas is. The gas cannot flow through the rock to the wells so the wells have to be drilled at regular intervals. Spacings of 8 wells per square mile (or even higher) are common in the US and Australia, where large areas have been coated in wells. Over 45,000 shale gas wells and 55,000 coal-bed methane (CBM) wells have been drilled in the US and over 5,000 CBM wells in Australia. The example of Bradford County in Pennsylvania is instructive, if unusually well documented. In the 4 years starting in 2008 through 2012 around 2000 shale gas well were drilled in an area which is about 80 percent the size of Sussex, with significant imapcts on residents. The animation above shows a quarterly time-lapse of well permits being issued. Along with the well pads comes a huge amount of other infrastructure including pipelines, compressor stations, waste storage ponds and tankers on the roads, which are shown in the map below.

Map Of Infrastructure To Support Shale Gas Wells Including Pipelines, Compressor Stations, Waste Storage Ponds and Treatment Facilities, In Bradford County, Pennsylvania

The UK has hardly seen any onshore oil and gas development at all, and certainly nothing remotely comparable to the unconventional gas extraction that is planned. The largest onshore conventional gas field to date in the UK, Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, had 8 wells. Because shale and CBM produce much less gas per well than conventional gas, an unconventional gas field would require hundreds of wells to produce the same amount of gas per day as Saltfleetby. To produce as much gas as a large North Sea field would require thousands of wells, covering hundreds of square miles of countryside. In the UK the companies keen to exploit this new process are careful to publicly concentrate on their short term plans for a small number of test wells, rather than where. However the long term impacts, both locally and globally, will be mainly related to the scale these developments could eventually reach. Of course this is not something which anyone actually knows, despite to confident predictions of the companies set to benefit. However it is very informative to see what various potential amounts of gas production would require, in terms of scale of development.

Gas Flare And Waste Tanker On A Marcellus Shale Fracking Site

The energy plan which the government is pushing, calls for the building of up to 40 new gas-fired power stations with a combined capacity of 37 gigawatts (GW). By the time most of them are built North Sea gas production will have fallen to a small fraction of present gas consumption, let alone the new demand that these power stations would create. Present gas-fired generating capacity is presently in the region of 30 GW, little of which is due to be decommissioned in the near future, unlike coal and nuclear stations many of which will close in the coming years. Even without this plan, a situation is developing where it will be very difficult to keep present demand supplied as North Sea production gas declines. The idea of massively increasing demand for gas when supplies are contracting seems reckless at best. One big unknown is what level of gas imports will be possible in the future, but it seems unlikely that they can increase drastically. So the question becomes, what would be the scale of unconventional gas development needed to meet this new demand, assuming that it is feasible?

Gas Pipeline Construction: Unconventional Gas Requires Extensive Networks Of New Pipelines

The 37 GW of new gas-fired electricity generating capacity that is being proposed would consume around 40 bcm of gas a year, which would require the drilling of around 2,000 unconventional gas wells a year (only a couple of thousand oil and gas wells have been drilled onshore in the UK over the last hundred years, most of which found nothing and were quickly plugged). Assuming that these power stations had a 30 year lifespan this would need 1200 bcm of gas and 54,000 wells in total, covering around 7,000 square miles (an area the size of Wales) with 4-8 wells per square mile, plus thousands of miles of pipelines and other infrastructure. Lancashire, Cheshire, South Wales, Somerset, Sussex and central Scotland would likely particularly affected but no area of the country would be entirely unaffected. Replacing the majority of the declining North Gas production with unconventional gas would require an at least an additional 36,000 wells out to 2040, which would eat up an additional 4,700 square miles of the country. This adds up to a similar number of unconventional gas wells to that drilled in the US, a country 40 times the size of the UK.

Fracking Operation In Progress At A Site In Amwell Township, Pennsylvania

There are numerous inconvenient facts that are likely to stand in the way of the chancellor’s mad schemes. For instance, the drilling campaign that would be needed to supply just these new power stations would require in excess of 200 modern directional rigs, when only a couple exist in the UK. While more could certainly be procured from abroad there will undoubtedly be considerable competition given the general increase in intensity of oil and gas extraction, and it highly unlikely that a rig fleet of that size could be assembled in the near future. We will address the feasibility of such large scale unconventional gas extraction in an upcoming article (see Fracking Scam: Boom and Bust). If possible, the impact of such a scale of extraction would be massive. Given that the population density of the UK is 12 times higher than that of the example of Bradford County, Pennsylvania above, the numbers of people affected would also be much higher. Between 5 and 8 million people could end up living in a landscape covered with wells and pipelines and given that production from unconventional gas wells falls off very quickly (70 percent declines in the first year are pretty typical) all this destruction would only provide gas for a very limited period.

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