Footprint, footprint, footprint. The mundane reality of natural gas

The attraction of UK onshore natural gas has always been location, location, location.  If we are even allowed to explore for it, let alone possibly produce it, it  is under a market that uses a lot of imports and will need a growing amount of them as we continue to install a new or upgraded heating system every 6 seconds of a 50 hour working week.  All into a market steps away from a distribution system bought and paid for years ago, at a commodity price that has a basis over US Henry Hub permanently built in.

But throughout the debate we should have talked, footprint, footprint, footprint. Nothing else matters. The smallest footprint possible makes onshore gas (and oil) acceptable, achievable – and profitable.  Yet the fundamental fear of journalists has been an outdated view of gas wells on every street corner.

Outdated, inaccurate and misleading photos like this one rarely appear in the UK media anymore, but more often it’s simply because they are as bored with the debate as everyone else.  But the mental image, published via Greenpeace and FoE in the past in the Telegraph, Guardian and BBC, hasn’t gone away.

The UK Onshore Operator Group released a report this week titled  “Developing Shale Gas and Maintaining The Beauty Of The British Countryside”.  I’ll leave aside pointing out much of the English countryside is also pretty well, blah even to those that live there.  The UK is no more as totally  pretty as the Cotswolds than everywhere is as rich and interesting as London.

At the same time there are plenty of brownfield site, urban and rural. Farming has a far greater impact than fracking for example.   The report can accurately be described as what will be a worse case scenario for footprint to the the general public

Our assessment shows that a material UK shale gas industry can be developed around our communities in a sensitive and measured fashion. By employing the latest subsurface drilling technology, the surface footprint of the industry will be minimal, with only a modest number of production sites, each of no more than the size of two football pitches, in every 100 km2 licence block. Furthermore, after the initial site development and drilling period, these sites will produce gas for twenty years or more, with virtually no visual, noise, lighting or traffic impact.

No wonder the antis were visibly stunned about this at a meeting of the APPG on shale last year.  Not true ! It will be a catastrophe they say.  But one to them.For them it’s not the worse case. It’s the worst case.  How sneaky of the industry to tell people otherwise, just like in water and chemicals and the rest. How dare they say there will only be a well pad every 10 sq miles -or maybe more!

But this is exceptionally twisted pretzel logic. Companies producing a report saying the impact will be minimal is one thing. Demonstrating it by doing it is something else again. It’s hard to think of an analogy here because the opponents are becoming nonsensical.  Are they pretending that the industry will deliberately use more well pads than they need?  What possible incentive, economic or otherwise, could possibly be gained by doing so?

Back to the report itself and the uncertainties it had to address in preparing it:

There is no single model that will cover all licence areas. However, as an illustration of a typical example (which uses a US pad development scenario, of 10 wells per production pad model), the underground area drained by each pad is between 6.5 and 11 km2. Given surface constraints, there will generally be a modest number of such production pads within any 10km by 10km area, which will occupy 0.2% or less of the total land area.

We estimate that approximately 400 well pads developed across the UK between 2020 and 2035 could reduce our gas import dependency by at least 50%. This compares to 88,000 pylons, 9,000 municipal waste water treatment facilities and 5,300 individual wind turbines that already exist.

Equally, giving this report a wide audience is a truly worst case scenario for opponents . How often have Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and local antis egged on by them, shown pictures of ancient oil fields and presented a deceptively inaccurate picture of the “industrialisation of the countryside” that poisons not the actual landscape, but the debate. The report shows, imperfectly but accurately, what surface footprint could look like.  Which is about as interesting a story as “local building site erects crane”.

And it isn’t a big deal. It is of course if one happens to live next door to a site, but to most people closer than a few hundred feet,  it’s only likely to be perceptible, as in Pennsylvania, if one goes out and looks for it.  The essential problem in the UK is that despite hundreds of wells being drilled in the past, no one has an accurate vision of what it would look like today.  To the public mind, it will look like the movies. Either the 100 years ago landscape of “There Will Be Blood” or the movies of 1956 as shown here.

The Wytch Farm well pads (all two of them) in what is by anyone’s standards, but especially of those who can afford to pay north of £5 million to live there, a truly outstanding area of natural beauty, are imperceptible for example.

Antis have been informed by a debate stuck in 2011. Regrettably, so have other people.  The recent Hard Talk interview with Jim Radcliffe of Ineos had Steven Sackur hammering him on landscape (and the other wise forthright Radcliffe being too polite to contradict), shows how the poison antis introduced as far back as Balcombe 2013 still hasn’t been  properly lanced among the general public.  Production since then has changed both world energy markets and the climate, for the better.

From my earliest days here I was always concerned by the foot print issue. While a couple of trips to Texas and Pennsylvania helped allay those fears,  what really put them to bed is what has happened since then. Wells extend much further and produce truly prodigious amounts of gas, and the technology has been a constant progression of faster, longer, cheaper, safer and most importantly, productive. Someone recently told me he was looking forward to thanking Friends of the Earth in the first production reports.  The delays they caused now allow the UK industry to be much more productive and at far lower cost than they would have been in ’11 or ’13 or even last year.  Technology may ultimately plateau, but one thing is certain: UK shale production in the 20’s will be entirely different than the relatively cautious technology depicted in the report.  Let’s understand something the antis can’t seem to grasp: Technology has never, ever, once, gone backwards.

So what remains? Pushing this report out for one. There’s a lot of news flow crowding it out this week but going forward, this report -and the questions it raises- needs to be stressed again and again.

There was once  an American president once who used  his Inaugural  Speech to say “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.  Fear is the only thing the antis have left.  Fear is not a positive emotion but a strong one.  The history of UK and US politics last year has been that fear works.  But it doesn’t work for very long. Fear is a survival mechanism, but understanding “loss aversion” shows how  once people confront fears, they tend to overcome them quite quickly.

Barack Obama has  many quotes but a favourite one of his, and mine comes via Voltaire about making making the perfect the enemy of the good. That’s true in natural gas and given the absence of good most places these days, true in much else.  Natural gas shouldn’t really need to point out how good it is.  The invisible fuel needs to put it’s head above the parapet and promote itself.

There has been a projection bias by some opponents:  FoE are so insecure about climate science, that they refuse to use it on what they probably see as a community of yahoos a long way from London smarty pants like them -or myself.  But emphasising transitory local impacts over permanent global ones,  damages the latter far more than the industry.   The FoE “club” or “tribe” are so insistent that renewables are the only answer that they project their own assumptions onto  the  gas industry as being equally absolutist.  That’s why they present “Fracking” as a binary yes/no choice when reality indicates the gas industry is perfectly content to co-operate with all energy sources, just as we have done for over a century.

Shale gas is not perfect. The goal is to make it as safe as the aviation industry.  That’s about all anyone can promise.  Most people will be comfortable with the standard, at least until after they come back from holiday.  After all, Voltaire also said “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. That just about sums up the UK debate these days.  It’s not a pleasant condition for the onshore industry, although it’s by far more pleasant and substantially cheaper than looking for natural gas in the North Sea or Libya or Siberia etc. etc.

Friends of the Earth choosing not to talk climate but leave their dirty work to deluded people blocking traffic to prevent traffic as in Lancashire, is the absurd side of the debate.  More dangerous is the situation in Yorkshire.  How can FoE stay silent on the climate debate and leave the important science on their key issue to be argued  by fruitcake conspiracy theorists alongside chemtrails and alien invasions?  FoE risk climate getting tarred with the same brush, and that would engender far greater damage for the planet than us imperfect souls in the shale industry would ever cause.

One thought on “Footprint, footprint, footprint. The mundane reality of natural gas”

  1. It’s always funny to see the anti-frackers make the “industrialization of the countryside” argument. They don’t seem to comprehend the idea of energy density very well. They can’t quite grasp the fact that the alternatives which they propose often mean industrialization at a scale that dwarfs what fracking would imply. It’s an odd argument for them to make.

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